Monday, August 24, 2015

Beam & Bridwell's AOR Utopia

Cover albums are rarely universally praised, except perhaps by music publishers looking to squeeze some new life from an old copyright. I remember having this argument with my father when David Bowie's Bertolt Brecht's Baal came out. Dad was an old-school Brechtian and thought Bowie put a little too much of himself into his interpretation of the German master's songs. I was (and still am) a dyed in the wool Bowie fanatic - although one raised on the Marc Blitzstein Threepenny Opera - and thought the Thin White Duke could have pushed his own personality further in his versions. 

Therein lie some of the pitfalls of covering songs. If they're familiar chestnuts, do we just want to be reminded of something we have loved? Or do we want to hear a radical new take that opens up new possibilities in old structures? Do we want to hear a classic retooled to fit a newer artist's style? Or do we want that new artist to demonstrate hitherto unknown aspects of their talent? And what about the idea of a current favorite bringing an old song to light, something that influenced them and deserves wider exposure?

This brings me to Sing Into My Mouth by Iron And Wine & Ben Bridwell, a covers album that manages in its 12 songs to touch on almost every issue mentioned above, triumphing in every situation. And for their troubles, Sam Beam (who is Iron And Wine) and Bridwell have received mostly terrible and even dismissive reviews. Some of that could be due to the casual flavor lent by the cover painting, which shows a bearded dude "speaking" a toast to be drunk with two beer bottles. Some of the reviewers seem to think that's how Beam & Bridwell made the album: cracked a couple of cold ones, tuned a couple of guitars, hit "record" and just sang whatever came to mind. 

I'm calling foul on that construct. This is an extremely well-conceived survey of songs from the last 50 or so years, demonstrating a wide array of interests on both Beam & Bridwell's parts. It's also gorgeously produced by Beam, with an overall acoustic-based warmth that allows for many individual touches to fulfill their vision of each song. My only issue with the album is that Beam is one of the most gifted singers of his generation, near the pinnacle of Robin Pecknold, Justin Vernon, and Hamilton Leithauser, while Bridwell, leader of Band Of Horses, is merely good. So while I prefer the the songs where Beam takes the lead, the dichotomy in no way interrupts the flow of the listening experience. 

In a certain way, they have pulled this mosaic of songs from various places and times and placed them all in an imagined utopia - that of 1970's Album Oriented Rock (AOR) radio. Keep in mind that this is done without a shred of irony. And why not? Staples of AOR were known for their solid song structures, masterful studio productions and universal lyrical themes. Beam & Bridwell succeed so completely at this at my wife is convinced she heard nearly all of these songs on the radio. In the case of the songs by John Cale, Marshall Tucker Band, Sade, J.J. Cale and Bonnie Raitt, this is certainly possible. Spiritualized? Not so much. I don't remember listening to the radio much in 2001 and I'm not even sure The Straight and the Narrow was released as a single in this country. 

Either way, that song is a great example of the pleasure and depth of Sing Into My Mouth. I've always felt that Jason Pierce of Spiritualized had some good instincts and ideas but nothing I've ever heard from them felt fully realized, partly due to his voice, a fairly thin instrument that rarely reaches the level of his ambitions for the grandiose songs he writes. Despite this, there is a huge well of affection for his band, making for dangerous waters into which the cover artist must wade. Beam and Bridwell brush all that aside, stripping away Pierce's grandeur to find this lovely song, which they rebuild with pedal steel, organ, a Nashville backbeat, and - crucially - Beam's background vocals, a rich arrangement that envelops Bridwell's everyman delivery without ever overwhelming him. While I might like their version better, I now have new appreciation for Jason Pierce's skills as a song classicist.

Talking Heads are even more of a sacred cow than Spiritualized (mostly for good reason) but what a relief to hear This Must Be The Place rescued from its slightly too chirpy 80's production! Beam & Bridwell have received much love for their take on that song, however even more of a revelation is the version they do of Bulletproof Heart by Sade. For all her success, she is slightly underrated as an artist - it all sounds so smooth - but she is the real deal as a songwriter. And Sam Beam is the real deal as a quiet storm soul singer. He could do a whole album of soul and R&B and I would wake up early to get on line to buy it. Unsurprisingly for the man who wrote Woman King, Beam has a special sensitivity to the female perspective, which he shows again on the intimate performance of Raitt's Anyday Woman included here. Bridwell also gets his chance to put some soul-power into his voice when they do Am I A Good Man, a much-sampled slice of sixties soul by Them Two that can stand a new airing.

God Knows (You Gotta Give To Get), originally by El Perro Del Mar, is another salvage operation. Erasing the memory of that band's irritating and mannered vocals, Beam & Bridwell sing this charming song without affectation while applying a brooding restraint with lots of original bits and pieces to the arrangement. In the case of David Gilmour's No Way Out Of Here they combine the best aspects of his recording and the one made by Unicorn to come up with maybe the definitive version, full of dynamics and banked fire. And if their version of Ronnie Lane's Done This One Before is a virtual xerox of the original, let it serve as a reminder of the continuing relevance of a neglected rock & roll savant. If a few people go and buy some Ronnie Lane albums after hearing it I'm sure no one will be happier than Sam Beam and Ben Bridwell. 

The album ends with a haunted re-imagining of Pete Seeger's Coyote, big as the desert sky, which wouldn't sound out of place on a Bon Iver album. Seeger was a towering figure for sure, and someone who imbued my childhood with song - but he never let you forget that he was teaching you how to sing the song while he sang it. The dangers of populism, I suppose. Beam & Bridwell sing it as if it arose from their blood and demanded release. Along with the rest of Sing Into My Mouth it's a stunning reminder of the elasticity of great songs, which sometimes have to hibernate for decades before reaching their true fulfillment, or at least to show off the further facets contained within them. Blow out the cobwebs of what you think this album, or these songs, should sound like and just listen - then drink a toast of your own to these brave young masters of song. 

Sing Into My Mouth is available on all streaming services and in all stores. To hear nearly all of the original songs, visit my playlist here:

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