Rock stars love mixtapes too. They’re just like us! Except, rather than futzing around with iTunes for an hour to create the perfect self-expression through someone else’s songs, musicians book studio time, commit a dozen or so cover tunes to tape and share them with the world. Or sometimes, they do so just to fulfill the terms of a recording contract. Either way.
If you’ve been keeping track this year, it’s been a solid year for cover albums (and no, I’m not counting The Bluegrass Tribute to the String Quartet Tribute to Fall Out Boy). It’s been a year that shows the wide variety of ways that artists tackle the cover album. There are reinterpreters (Cat Power’s Jukebox); crate-digging-as-public-service-types (the Hellacopters’ swan song Head Off and the Wildhearts’ Stop Us If You’ve Heard This One Before, Volume 1) and the here’s-a-bunch-of-well-known-tunes-I-dig guys. The last is a slot solidly, if unexceptionally, filled by Jesse Malin’s On Your Sleeve.
If you’ve been keeping half an eye on Malin’s evolution from his neo-punk gutterpoet days with D Generation to his current, uh, roots rock gutterpoet iteration last seen on 2007’s Glitter in the Gutter (where else?), you could probably guess at least half of On Your Sleeve‘s track list, and be right. There is ‘70s and ‘80s punk (the minute-long stab at Johnny Thunders’ “It’s Not Enough”, Bad Brains’ righteous “Leaving Babylon”), ‘70s singer/songwriters like Jim Croce (“Operator,” which Malin has been tossing into his sets since at least 2004) and Harry Nilsson (“Everybody’s Talkin’”), and roots rockers both old and new. Neil Young’s “Looking For a Love” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” both fall squarely in Malin’s wheelhouse. Springsteen, having guested on Glitter in the Gutter, gets repaid here by Malin in publishing rights. And if it hadn’t dawned on you that Malin and Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn were brothers-in-arms as chroniclers of the downtrodden, then “You Can Make Them Like You” will surely drive home the connection.
With so many tunes playing out exactly as anticipated, it’s surprising that the song which seems most likely to be revered by Malin gets the biggest reworking: the Rolling Stones’ “Sway”. Hell, the chorus has been Malin’s Mission Statement for nearly 15 years: “It’s just that demon life that’s got you in its sway.” In the amiable liner notes, Malin explains that he “tried to approach this one a la ‘Suicide style’ but with an acoustic guitar thrown in.” Of all the times to slay a sacred cow… the wash of synths just doesn’t work, especially when stacked against the more “Malinesque” takes elsewhere on the disc.
As noted in the conclusion of many other cover-album reviews throughout time and space (how’s that for a generalization?), On Your Sleeve acts only as a fine stopgap until Malin’s next release proper. This late October disc still plays as more treat than trick for his loyal fanbase.