Cover albums are hard
You have to wonder why Shawn Colvin put Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest” first on her most recent album of cover songs in more than 20 years. Not only is she competing with the Boss’s version, Colvin takes on Emmylou Harris’ successful country-style version. Colvin’s rendition is a bit slower and her protagonist more worn down. She may be just dancing in the dark looking for the spark, but Colvin’s character actually sounds like she’s been around, rather than just boasting like Emmylou and Bruce’s personae. The song is an odd introduction, as if she’s proclaiming her best is over but she’s not quite done yet.
There’s hints of that elsewhere, particularly on covers of Tammy Wynette’s yearning “Till I Get it Right”, John Fogerty’s reflective “Lodi”, Gerry Rafferty’s melancholic “Baker Street”, and Graham Nash’s pensive “I Used to Be a King”. Colvin painfully sings that the best days are behind her. That may be true. Her voice lacks the range and dynamism she had decades ago. That’s normal and part of the aging process. But many talented artists find ways to use experience as a way to add to their palette. Colvin seems satisfied just to find material that lets her pass for the older but wiser girl. She’s no sheboopi.
That doesn’t necessarily make the disc a bad one as much as a lazy one. There are times Colvin’s strategy works. She makes Tom Waits’ laconic “Hold On” into a country & western ballad complete with a tear in one’s beer. Colvin is almost upbeat on Crowded House’s sentimental “Private Universe” and clearly enjoys her duet with Marc Cohn on Brenton Wood’s soulful love song, “Gimme a Little Sign”.
Perhaps the low-energy found on many songs is based on the arrangements. No drums can be heard, with the exception of a few percussion instruments. The rest is acoustic and pedal steel guitars, plus Colvin’s singing. As a result, the songs are mostly sung at a slow pace. While Colvin offers tunes by some of the greatest songwriters of the past 50 years such as Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, and Robbie Robertson, these artists know that not every word needs to be annunciated clearly the way Colvin does.
Cover albums are hard. When one records familiar songs, as does Colvin here, the listener immediately compares them to the originals. One competes at a disadvantage. Colvin needs to bring something new to the songs, but for the most part does not perform them much differently than the older tunes. These do not claim to be the real thing, but why we need copies is not clear.
That could explain why the most satisfying track here is Colvin’s version of Robert Earl Keen’s dreamy “Not a Drop of Rain”, which is the album’s least known song. Colvin nicely captures the mix of failure and promise expressed by the narrator, who can find joy in watching children at play and others in love even though the singer sees the promise of personal happiness as a mirage. Colvin conveys the combination of sentiments as a jumble rather than a blend. Life is not perfect. In fact it may suck. But one can still suck the joy out of what it is as long as one lives and breathes.
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