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New Albums From Plant And Krauss, Ann Wilson, And Shawn Lee Put New Spins On Old Favorites--For Better And Worse

www.myspace.com/shawnleemusic
THROW BACK: Shawn Lee retreads brit-pop into retro soul, even though nobody asked him to.

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 10/24/2007

The world may never run out of songs, but you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise. How else do you explain the approximately eleventy-bajillion covers albums that have been, or will be, released in 2007? All year, new-release sheets have frequently resembled reanimation centers for artists hoping for career resurrections, like Josie Cotton and New Found Glory's albums of movie songs, or simply looking to maintain the faithful in low-stress fashion, as with Babyface's Playlist. There's the Vitamin label, with its string-quartet and bluegrass versions of any band with an album in the Billboard 200, and the Baby Rock label, with its kids-lullaby versions of Nirvana and the Cure--not to mention the Kidz Bop series of classrooms full of children singing current hits, now on its 12th volume.

For jazz and pre-rock pop, the covers album has been putting food on the table for ages, so Herbie Hancock doing an album of Joni Mitchell songs, or Tony Bennett's perplexing Sings the Ultimate American Songbook, Vol. 1 (at what precise point in history has Bennett not been singing just that?), abet the trend rather than fit into it. Still, "songbook" albums like these have been doing big business for rock-era performers since Rod Stewart began his string of standards discs in 2002. It's no surprise that Barry Manilow followed Stewart to No. 1 by paying tribute to the '70s--a decade Manilow already defined as it happened. If you're going to traffic in nostalgia, the thinking goes, you might as well wear a tux while doing it.

Or have a concept in hand, as with Mark Ronson's June-issued Version, which makes over recent Britpop as mod-era R&B with a Rolodex of guest singers. Version has garnered some of the most hilariously over-the-top reviews of any album this year: Blender wondered why anyone needed this, while Pitchfork gave it a 3.3 out of 10. Such ire is misplaced: Version is uneven, but when it hits its marks, it's spectacular, as with the Amy Winehouse-sung "Valerie," originally by the Zutons and one of the best singles of the year. But those reviews really belong to an album no one knew existed while they were being written: Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra Hits the Hits (Ubiquity).

An American in England obsessed with crate-digger R&B, Shawn Lee is a multi-instrumentalist and producer--the "Ping Pong Orchestra" is largely himself, heavily overdubbed--whose major talent is for re-creating the sound of his old faves. And although he's made the occasional decent track in this vein, like "Song for David," a tribute to producer David Axelrod from Voices and Choices, released in January, most of the time he's too damn cutesy for his own good. On Hits the Hits, Lee tricks up 14 recent chart smashes in vintage styles--mostly hip-hop and R&B, though a couple rock songs sneak in, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "By the Way." Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out of My Head," redone as a dirty midtempo groove with sitar and wah-wah guitar, is a highlight--the only one.

Lee's intention seems to be a loving pastiche of the kind of dollar-bin records he loves by jazz cats slumming for a payday via the then-current Hot 100. But those records were largely forgotten for a reason, and in that sense Lee gets their spirit a little too right. His recastings are pedestrian: "Toxic" and "Get Ur Freak On" as spy-movie themes--yawn. He misses the point a number of times as well: the unceasing tension of Amerie's "1 Thing" comes from a beat, sampled from the Meters, that's obviously cut and looped. Here the beat is played live, and well enough, but what made it attractive is now dulled. Lee also includes wispy, unnecessary vocals for the chorus for this and several other songs--they're especially intrusive on "Rock Your Body," where Justin Timberlake's sly "Bet I'll have you naked by the end of this song" becomes a creepy fern-bar pickup line.

Ann Wilson is also a creature of '70s kitsch. As the lead singer of Heart during that decade she made some ripe sub-Zeppelin hits before going on to ape Starship in the woebegone '80s. Hope and Glory (Zoe), Wilson's new disc of covers--all but four of the 12 being duets--aims for high seriousness, which in rock terms means that it's dominated by '60s-identified material. It's also another way of saying that Hope and Glory is one of the most unintentionally hilarious albums of the year: Wilson sings everything in the same histrionic edge-of-seat manner, and the string arrangements that pop up in songs like the Animals' "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" are equally ill-advised. The most jaw-dropping thing here is Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," on which Wilson is joined by Shawn Colvin (dull, as usual) and Rufus Wainwright, whose voice is not only filtered (a mistake) but echoed (a howler). This version of "Hard Rain" will take its place in the camp pantheon before the decade is finished.

In an odd coincidence, Wilson's strongest vocal forebear also has a duet album of covers out. But Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Raising Sand (Rounder) gets its power from its restraint. Sometimes it's too careful, as the album's producer, T-Bone Burnett, tends to be: At times, his atmospheric production is sometimes just stolid, too reverent for its own good. But more often than not, Raising Sand is rich and evocative. And while it's hardly a surprise for an album by Plant and Krauss to be well-sung, their near-whispered close harmonies--on about half the songs--are often breathtaking, particularly on the Rowland Salley-penned "Killing the Blues" (best known in John Prine's rendition) and ex-Byrd Gene Clark's aching "Through the Morning, Through the Night."

The material comes from all over, even Plant's own past: "Please Read the Letter" was originally cut on the 1998 Jimmy Page-Plant album, Walking to Clarksdale. Plant is wonderfully dry on Allen Toussaint's "Fortune Teller" ("Now I get my fortune told for free," he rasps, his glee just barely suppressed), and their twin take on "Rich Woman" (a '50s R&B obscurity by Li'l Millet and His Creoles that has also been covered by Canned Heat and the Fabulous Thunderbirds) has a ghostly vibe reminiscent of Dr. John's swamp-R&B classic Gris-Gris. The real killer, though, is Doc Watson's "Your Long Journey," in which an old couple vows their eternal love. The way Plant and Krauss sing the word "darling" on this song can break your heart--and they sing "darling" six times, each more delicately than the last. Sometimes, when we're lucky, it's the singer and the song.

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