Two good musicians fall short with covers albums

Sound Salvation

Cover songs are more than just bar band fodder. In the right hands, a cover can equal, or better, the source material. Janis Joplin made a career of it. She only played covers during her short run as rock 'n' roll's queen. Is there any doubt that Joe Cocker's version of "With a Little Help from My Friends" blows away the Beatles original?

But even with the best intention's covers can fall flat. In the past month, two impressive musicians released cover albums that leave a lot to be desired, especially considering the sources.

In the 1990s, Raul Malo was on the edge of country music's Latin expansion, mixing music from his Cuban heritage to honkytonk twang with his masterful band The Mavericks. While the band's tight sound and impressive musical vocabulary were second to none, the real star of the show was Malo, or more precisely his voice.

It's a voice I used to think I'd listen to if he was singing the telephone book. But after a quick run through of his cover album, You're Only Lonely. The album is Malo's attempt at gaining a foothold into some MOR audience, gone are the sexy Latin beats and the bawdy country twang. While the song choices are solid, nothing too popular or too obscure, Malo doesn't show emotion.

Listen to his cover of Ron Sexsmith's "Secret Heart." The original version was a spare DIY-sounding lament that served as a opening statement to Sexsmith's self-titled 1995 album, that introduced the quirky Canadian to a broader audience. The original has a stark quality that the slickness of Malo's version waxes over.

If he really wanted to update the lack of instrumentation on the song, perhaps Malo should have followed the lead of Feist. Last year she released a quirky and endearing version of "Secret Heart" that captured the underlying whimsy and childishness of the song.

Malo should know how to make a great cover album by now. You're Only Lonely is the third his worked on. Last year he released the acclaimed Nashville Acoustic Sessions with a group of Music City side players and he did some work with Los Straightjackets covering "Black is Black" in 2001.

Grant Lee Phillips' first foray into cover songs doesn't try to turn the songs on his tribute to the 1980s, aptly titled nineteeneighties, into shiny, but hollow versions of the originals. If anything, he tries too hard to strip away the sheen from songs from a decade that was all about sheen. In doing so he also loses a great deal of the energy of each song. I didn't think it was possible to make the Pixies sound boring, but Phillips does it.

Perhaps best known for his stint as the town troubadour on the TV show "Gilmore Girls," Phillips in both his early work as the leader of Grant Lee Buffalo and in his solo albums has carved a niche as a brilliant songwriter with a superior voice. He can be melancholy one minute and exuberant the next and neither sounds out of place.

But uniformly, his covers album falls flat. The songs, although beautifully played, have no urgency. His version of the Church's "Under the Milky Way" ups the dirge-like quality in a songthat was already pretty atmospherically mopey, stripping out any hope and leaving only the darkness.

Not all recently released covers albums have been bad or, worse yet in the case of Phillips and Malo, pointless. Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs combined forces for a love letter to 1960s pop on Under the Covers, Vol. 1 and did a fantastic version of the Beach Boys' "Warmth of the Sun." Bruce Springsteen's loose and rollicking recording of "O Mary Don't You Weep" is a highlight on his uniformly good Pete Seeger tribute album, We Shall Overcome -- The Seeger Sessions. And bossa nova pranksters Nouvelle Vague give a fun loungy makeover to Billy Idol's "Dancing With Myself" as part of their album Bande A Part.

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