Release Date: Sep 17, 2013
Record label: Vagrant
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Leave it to a musician as self-deprecating as Mark Lanegan to slap his covers album with the lowly title Imitations. He is, however, giving proper reverence to the giants he tackles—Frank Sinatra, Patsy Cline and Bobby Darin among them. Musos may recall that Lanegan first achieved solo career recognition with a cover of Leadbelly’s wrenching “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” that featured Kurt Cobain.
Whether with Screaming Trees or the various projects that followed, Mark Lanegan made his name singing the gloomiest of songs, plumbing the kind of emotional depths that only a grizzle-voiced former heroin addict could. Those days are long behind Lanegan, but that darkness still resides within him today – something clearly evident on both 2012’s sublimely stark Blues Funeral and his collaboration, earlier this year, with Duke Garwood. Why the hell, then, is he releasing a collection of crooner cover versions? If that sounds totally incongruous, when you hear him croaking out Mack The Knife like somebody’s drunk grandfather, or his gravelled takes on Pretty Colors and You Only Live Twice, it starts making sense.
Mark Lanegan is nothing if not a man of diverse tastes. Influences from across the musical spectrum have shaped his craft since day one, and the gunpowder-voiced bard has never been shy about citing his personal beacons in interviews. Such admiration for the work of his forbearers and peers, and his keen ear for attention, has likewise manifested in Lanegan also being a deft interpreter of others’ songs, something he has done since covering Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” on his first solo outing, 1990’s The Winding Sheet.
A few months ago, Mark Lanegan served Black Pudding, a duo album with grit-blues guitarist Duke Garwood. On his second album of 2013, the former Screaming Trees and erstwhile Queens Of The Stone Age vocalist offers twelve cover versions. Perhaps Lanegan’s making amends for the seven-year gap between 2005’s brilliant solo breakthrough Bubblegum and last year’s equally – if not more so – powerful Blues Funeral? Whatever the rate of productivity, Lanegan remains seemingly incapable of making a bad record.
There is only one Mark Lanegan. Nirvana’s In Utereo might well be getting the anniversary treatment at the moment, but perhaps the most evocative sound to come from the grunge era is his deep, tobacco and whiskey stained voice. Nobody else sounds like Lanegan; he really is out there on his own in terms of timbre and resonance, as anyone who has caught his work with Screaming Trees, Queens Of The Stone Age, Isobel Campbell, The Gutter Twins or Soulsavers will attest to.
Beginning with Mark Lanegan's cover of Lead Belly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" on The Winding Sheet, his 1990 solo debut album, he's revealed himself to be a fine interpretive singer. Until now, he's only issued one previous record of covers, 1999's wonderful I'll Take Care of You. On Imitations, Lanegan offers contemporary songs, standards, and obscure numbers that, according to him, reveal the effect his parents' record collection had on him.
As bands from Seattle's early '90s glory days trudge on, the Screaming Trees are noticeably absent. That's because, after 15 years of brilliant work (often surprisingly so) on his own and with a legion of collaborators, it's impossible to conceive of singer Mark Lanegan going back to doing something as pedestrian as "grunge." That's especially true after hearing Imitations, a covers album similarly patterned after his oft-overlooked 1999 gem, I'll Take Care of You. While both records share most of the same players (notably guitarist Mike Johnson, whom Lanegan hasn't worked with in over a decade), Imitations finds Lanegan assuming a new role — that of '60s crooner with an orchestra.
On 2012’s Blues Funeral, Mark Lanegan veered about as far from his best-known project, Screaming Trees, as anyone might have guessed he could. His voice hadn’t changed—it was the container it came in, a synthesized and stylized sound that made Lanegan’s slurring, bluesy purr seem like rotgut whiskey trapped in a crystal decanter. Since then, Lanegan has circled closer to home; Black Pudding, his collaboration earlier this year with Duke Garwood, is characteristically rich and earthy, and his vocals are almost entirely absent from the icy Like Clockwork by Queens of the Stone Age, his steady side-gig over the past few years.
Imitations is the eighth solo record from Mark Lanegan, whose 30-year-career in music has also included stints fronting grunge legends Screaming Trees, lending some killer vocal takes to Josh Homme's Queens of the Stone age and collaborating with various DiS-approved luminaries such as Isobel Campbell, Greg Dulli and UNKLE's James Lavelle. His reputation as a fearless creative is indisputable, and his cracked-leather drawl manages is one of the most unique and emotive in modern music history. Imitations is a covers record.
The covers album is often the last refuge of the creatively bankrupt; always a vanity project. Make a decent fist of it though, and it can be your Johnny Cash moment. On ‘Imitations’, Mark Lanegan growls his way through sad waltzes and smooth crooning standards like ‘Lonely Street’ (Andy Williams) and ‘Mack The Knife’ (Sinatra), and brings an intimate tenderness to John Cale’s ‘I’m Not The Loving Kind’.
Imitations is a pipe-and-slippers album, Mark Lanegan's declared attempt to make an album that reminded him of the music his parents listened to when he was a kid, hence the three songs best known in versions by Andy Williams. Nick Cave (Brompton Oratory) and Greg Dulli (Deepest Shade) also get saloon singer makeovers, and the concept is so consistent that the joins are all but invisible. Imitations works best when Lanegan, his voice as dark and smoky as one of those old-fashioned gentlemen's clubs, tackles something so unexpected it forces you to reappraise the song: You Only Live Twice, in particular, is a triumph, the grandeur and drama of the Bond theme replaced by a delicate weariness.
Most cover songs employ the understanding that the perform is in a position to elaborate upon a piece of music that already bears another’s identity, that they posses such creative gifts that their interpretation of a revered work is a rewarding experience for themselves and the listener. While there are exceptions, cover records regularly amount to unwarranted filler fare and blatantly self-indulgent statements of narcissism. Mark Lanegan’s gravelly baritone can tackle just about any song, filtering it through his somber pipes providing new life.
Gracefully strutting into the role of an elder statesmen in rock, Mark Lanegan, since lighting the first fires of grunge in Screaming Trees, has seen it all, met everyone and then crafted a classic album or two with them. From Josh Homme and PJ Harvey to Isobel Campbell and Moby, Lanegan has perhaps the most enviable phonebook in music. So, when he stated “For a long time I’ve wanted to make a record that gave me the same feeling those old records did [his parents’], using some of the same tunes I loved as a kid and some that I’ve loved as I have gotten older” he laid down a whole new gauntlet; the ever risky cover album.
How many contemporary vocalists convey the organic forces at work in recorded music as powerfully as Mark Lanegan does? A number of male singers have a cock-waving attachment to presenting themselves as if in the grip of the physical ravages of whisky and tobacco, but this is mere affectation in comparison to Lanegan, whose voice possesses a corporeality which signifies far in excess of the words it articulates. Indeed, it has frequently seemed the case that its nature, wasted and wasting, dictates the lyrical concerns of the songs it sings. Alienated from their instrument on the page, the Skid Row vignettes of 'Carnival' or 'Methamphetamine Blues' would be dismissed as melodramatic.