[26 August 2009]
Covering a song is hard. A singer must find his or her own approach to material that is often beloved. Do it right, like Blackstreet’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need” or En Vogue’s cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Giving Him Something He Can Feel”, and you can spark an endless debate among music fans about which version is better. One wrong step, though, like Christina Aguilera’s atrocious cover of Donny Hathaway’s “A Song For You” or Boyz II Men’s cover of New Edition’s “Can You Stand the Rain”, and you can alienate an entire generation.
The greatest challenge lies in trying to put your own stamp on an artist who is a singular figure, and do it for the entire length of an album. Such is the case with contemporary soul star Calvin Richardson’s new album of Bobby Womack songs, Facts of Life: The Soul of Bobby Womack, named for Womack’s 1973 album.
Anyone who has heard Richardson might think this is a match made in heaven. From the moment he dropped his criminally ignored debut, Country Boy, Richardson has drawn frequent comparisons to Womack, partly due to the fact that he included a very good cover of “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much” on the Country Boy.
Well, he does largely acquit himself here admirably, due in no small part to the fact that his voice is similar to Womack’s (though clearer, with a bit more technical polish, and a much healthier dose of church), and he doesn’t change as much as he could have, arrangement-wise. I suspect how one views that last point will dictate his or her enjoyment of the album. Interestingly though, by not changing the arrangements much Richardson relies on his voice to draw the distinction between his version and the originals. It’s a bold move, considering how similar their voices are.
Obviously, the best covers then are the ones where Richardson’s approach enhances the song. Take “Harry Hippie”, Womack’s touching tribute to his slain brother. The song is a perfect showcase of how beautifully Richardson can control his instrument. He’s capable of real force, but he approaches the song with a kind of restrained fire that makes the song more gospel parable than street cautionary tale, as it was in the original. Richardson’s approach shows how the street and the church are really two sides of the same coin.
Running a close second is a stunning version of “I’m Through Trying to Prove My Love to You”, which is gorgeous. And like Womack before him, Richardson largely cedes the spotlight to his duet partner, gospel siren Ann Nesby, on “Love Has Finally Come At Last.”
All of that said, the question with albums of this type is always: “Do we need it?” It’s a hard question to answer. There is something to be said for artists like Richardson paying homage to the artists that inspired them, and in so doing, introducing these artists to a new generation of listeners. Americans are so of the moment when it comes to music (especially black music, which is often consumed, appropriated, and then discarded for whatever new thing black musicians are doing) that it is nice to have Richardson as an entry point to a classic musician who is largely unknown by the vast majority of record buyers.
From an artistic standpoint, this is clearly a project that is special for Richardson. That is probably why he doesn’t mess with perfection, by covering the songs and recording with actual musicians, which gives the album the kind of texture missing from even the best soul music recorded now. That he doesn’t really mess anything up (although he sounds oddly out of his depth on album opener “Across 110th Street”) is a testament to just how beautiful a singer he is. But there is just no denying that he has sounded just as good, if not better, on his own material. Listen to the opening seconds of “Keep on Pushin”, from his near-flawless sophomore album 2:34PM, and you’ll see. Hopefully, people will listen to this album and buy a Bobby Womack album – and a Calvin Richardson one.