The best cover albums are those that give the listener fresh insight into the original songs. The new recordings illuminate hidden aspects of the material rather than just offer another version of the same old thing. There are plenty of good voices out there that can do more than competent renditions of classic tracks, but who needs another Rod Stewart cranking out the hits (one seems to be more than enough already). The young Serena Ryder surprisingly manages to breathe life into a repertoire of semi-familiar tunes by older artists. The Canadian singer has selected a batch of songs written by fellow musicians from her native country and brings out qualities not always evident in the older versions. Ryder primarily accomplishes this in two ways: She has a three-octave voice and uses it to accent lyrics that were not always clearly annunciated or emphasized and she puts the tunes in different rhythms and tempos that illustrate some latent facet of the melody. Sometimes she utilizes both strategies at the same time.
One would think that after so many versions of a song like Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” that there was nothing left to hear that hasn’t been heard. But Ryder finds beauty in the words not usually stressed. She cleanly offers the organic metaphor of Eros as if quoting poetry, which it is, when she gets to: “If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn / They will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem”. Ryder accents each third syllable so that the words resonate as if spoken verse. She takes one’s breath away with her direct presentation. Cohen’s description of the physical comfort of strangers to one crippled by the pain of living has never sounded better.
Then there’s Paul Anka’s “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore”, an ode to love lost that Buddy Holly made popular. Everyone knows that early rock and roll owes a strong debt to church music (think Ray Charles), but one usually doesn’t equate it with light fare like this. Ryder shows the music’s gospel underpinnings of fifties rock. Performed over a slow, martial organ accompaniment, Ryder could be wailing to the Lord when she chews out “You go your way and I’ll go mine / Now and forever until the end of time” as if spewing fire and brimstone. The Canadian lass wrenches every last bead of sweat inherent in the emotion-drenched tune.
In a low register, Ryder sings the old We Five hit “You Were on My Mind” to what seems to be a rumba beat. This allows her to show the real gravity of the song (“I got drunk / and I got sick / and I came home again”) without getting maudlin. The overall effect makes it even catchier than the original pop hit was.
These choices show the eclecticism of Ryder’s selections. She allegedly started off with a list of over 500 songs from the past 100 years. Her picks reveal a conservative diversity, which is not as oxymoronic as it initially sounds. While there’s Cohen and the Band (the album’s title comes from the Band’s “This Wheel’s on Fire”), there’s no Joni Mitchell or Gordon Lightfoot. Other album highlights include a soulful rendition of Percy Faith’s white bread “My Heart Cries for You”, a soft-psychedelic version of Ed McCurdy’s folk standard “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream”, a Calypso take on the Big Band hokum classic “Boo-Hoo”, and a sophisticated approach to the Lovin’ Spoonful’s lighthearted “Coconut Grove”. Ryder penned the last three cuts on the disc. They don’t hold up well compared to the rest of the material. The lyrics tend to fall into banalities and the tunes are sing-songy and offer nothing new.
Other musicians have sung tributes to Canadian songwriters—k.d. lang’s Hymns of the 49th Parallel comes to mind as a recent equivalent—but they mostly take a reverent approach to the past works. Ryder seems more interested in having fun. Even when crooning serious lyrics one can hear the hint of a smile. Ryder comes across as a kid playing dress up. Look at me wearing mom’s dresses and dad’s shoes! She fills them well. She’s not a little girl anymore. But the failings of her own writing shows that she’s not quite grown up yet either. There’s no shame in not yet being as good as the talents who came before you, and Ryder deserves props for trying rather than just sticking entirely to covers. This record reveals her many gifts and the potential to grow and get even better.
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