Everyone loves a cover song. Ok, that’s not entirely true, but for a performer there is no greater crowd-pleaser than playing a recognizable cover song in a different style—most audiences will cheer louder when their favorite artist, who they just dished out their hard earned cash to see, whips out a different rendition of a song by their other favorite artist. 1980s covers are particularly hot these days, especially considering the majority of currently popular musicians grew up listening to the Psychadelic Furs or Tears for Fears. Their childhood and nostalgia rests in the ‘80s, so it only makes sense that we’re hearing more and more needless renditions of classics by the Smiths, New Order or the Cure.
There is a difference, however, between a one-off cover song in a long set list of predominantly original material versus an entire full-length album of covers. Tori Amos did it, Johnny Cash did it, k.d. lang did it—many popular musicians growing stagnant with their own writing capabilities and nearing out the latter half of their career dabble with releasing a full-length covers album. Now it’s Duncan Sheik’s turn. Sheik has had a long and windy musical career seeing major dips with 2002’s Daylight and even worse with the god-awful 2006 White Limousine. The only saving grace of the latter was that it was accompanied with a DVD-R featuring all the stems of all 12 songs, so you could remix one or all of the songs yourself—which I did, and it’s the only way I can listen to that album. But Sheik learned well in advance of the music/Internet crisis. He took on writing musical theatre with the popular Spring Awakening. His previous full-length album, Whisper House, is a collection of tunes that he wrote for a musical released later that year. The album was a welcome change, and although PopMatters’ review wasn’t incredibly favorable, this reviewer thought it was a stellar album of folk/pop tracks, nicely accented by careful craftsmanship and beautiful harmonies from Holly Brook. It was good to hear that Mr. Sheik wasn’t permanently stuck in a downward spiral.
However, with Covers 80’s, Sheik continues to play on the new quirky folk tropes that made Whisper House so compelling, but here the xylophone tings and piano plunks set against impossibly perfect acoustic guitar playing just sounds tired and un-inventive. The problem with most covers albums is that it’s clear the artist has no intention of giving the material the full instrumentation (or respect) they often times deserve. Playing them slower and on an acoustic guitar with little to no change in vocal delivery does not make for a compelling covers album. What it does is hearken back to those coffee house days of sensitive guys playing their favorite Smiths song (or worse, the “ironic” Britney Spears pop tune played for laughs) with their acoustic guitar, trying desperately to sound like they know how to reinterpret songs like most great jazz performers—but they don’t. Covers albums are novelty albums, and Sheik’s Covers 80’s is not an exception.
Here, we hear Sheik go through his ‘80s iPod playlist beginning with Depeche Mode’s “Stripped”, ironically stripped of all the gusto and passion the original possesses. From then on in Sheik ventures in and out of popular ‘80s tunes such as “Hold Me Now” by the Thompson Twins, “So Alive” by Love & Rockets, and the ludicrous sounding “Shout” by Tears for Fears. Have you ever listened to the lyrics of “Shout”? They’re horrendous! They’re no better than those “gag” songs on Glee about singing about your hairbrush or your favorite cup. So, what Sheik decided to do on his version was slow the whole thing down and really enunciate the awfulness that is “Shout”, singing about a list of things the narrator can do without, which includes disrespectful teenagers who give their parents hell when they gave them life. Perhaps a more appropriate track to cover would have been the phenomenally better “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”.
The album meanders on like this, with no percussive instruments to be found anywhere, which is the real downfall of the album. You can tell that Sheik cares much less about other people’s songs than he does his own. He never would have released such a sparse and half-assed album of original material. However, that’s not to say the entire thing is a waste. Instead the album is best listened to in dissected form, plucking out your favorite tracks and placing them in longer mixed playlists. Any of the renditions here would probably sound like a nice welcomed addition to a mixed tape. Sheik’s take on the Blue Niles’ “Stay” is breathtakingly simple and magnificently effective. However, having to sit through 10 tracks that pretty much sound exactly the same to get to it could render the tune the fate of a forgotten gem.
The tunes Sheik chose for the album are admirable. Those who are geeky enough (like yours truly) to compile a playlist of the original versions of each track will be pleasantly surprised to hear a well thought out and varied mix of ‘80s tunes. Ultimately the album consists of adequate segments, aptly played but amalgamating into a lesser valued whole. To hear solitary tracks now and again is probably the only way these tracks can be salvaged. It’s a novelty album, and we can only hope that Sheik is quick to get back to creating his own original material, which he obviously cares much more about.