Kendra Morris puts together a collection of covers for her second album.
Covers are a double-edged sword. They can trap artists in the emulation of idols at the expense of developing their own personality, and even strongly independent veteran artists may lose their nerve when trying to put their own stamp on classics. But covers also show artists’ respect for their heritage and allow them to work in new ways with established building blocks. In the right hands, covers can be stunning, gaining power because they blow apart the seemingly rigid boxes constructed from previous cuts of a song. R&B has a long and excellent history of covering, but often, the older the original, the more rigid that box becomes. Several R&B singers have recorded covers album in recent years: Leela James’s Let’s Do It Again, Mayer Hawthorne’s Impressions EP, Bettye Lavette’s Thankful ‘n’ Thoughtful, and now, Kendra Morris’s Mockingbird.
Morris debuted in 2012 with Banshee, an album of snapping beats, wah-wah guitar, crashing cymbals, jabbing organs, and Morris singing effective soul, sometimes evoking Lauryn Hill, sometimes a thinner, less sassy version of Amy Winehouse. "Concrete Waves" had sing-song vocals and a guitar line that might have been inspired by Dr. Dre, and "The Plunge" sounded like a fierce soul update of the Animals "House of the Rising Sun". "Just One More" showed a smoother side, as Morris harmonized softly over a break beat and a mournful piano, a song that aimed small but hit big. Morris didn’t actually sound like a banshee, but listeners probably didn’t mind.
In the press material accompanying the new album, Morris suggests that for her, recording covers serves another purpose: "I think doing covers is great, because it turns people onto an artist that maybe they would have never taken the time to listen to." Though this sometimes might be the case (as with Mayer Hawthorne’s cover of a rare old 45, "You’ve Got the Makings of a Lover"), most of the songs Morris picks to cover are classics from pop and rock artists such as Lou Reed, David Bowie, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Radiohead, Chris Isaak, and Johnny Mathis. Interestingly, almost every artist she chooses to cover is an old white man, with the exception of the Charmels -- whose "As Long I’ve Got You" is probably best known as the source of the Wu-Tang Clan’s "C.R.E.A.M." -- Bettye Lavette, and Dionne Warwick, who sang the original version of Bacharach and David’s "Walk on By".
What’s Morris’s approach to covering a tune? Often, she stays pretty close to the original, not bothering to use the tools of soul and funk when interpreting Bowie’s "Space Oddity" or the Beach Boys’ "Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)". She brings Radiohead’s "Karma Police" into R&B territory by crisping up the drums, playing the main melody on organ, and adding a spurt of '60s soul rhythm guitar to keep time. "Walk on the Wild Side" gets an injection of New Orleans-sounding percussion before proceeding breezily, while Mathis’s "No Love (But Your Love)" benefits from its newly funky trappings. "As Long As I’ve Got You" and "Walk on By" are tough choices for a covers album, since both already have definitive cover versions, by the Emotions and Isaac Hayes respectively. (She tries to mix up "Walk On By" by speeding and punching it up, but it can’t approach the magnificent melancholy of Hayes.)
Morris’s reworking of the Stones’ "Miss You" and the still-radio-friendly stomper that is the Proclaimers’ "I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)" are the most successful tracks in terms of taking a song and making it her own. "Miss You" loses all its connection to disco, as the bass takes a long pause in the middle before flurrying it’s way onward. The Stones were all about the steady plod, but Morris and her band keep stopping and starting, never letting anyone get comfortable. And "I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)" is almost unrecognizable. It’s now a dark mess, less a declaration of love and constancy then a scary stalkers anthem. That’s the strength of covers -- since expectations are solidified by history, it’s even easier to upend them.