Music

Mark Lanegan: Imitations

Photo: Anna Hrnjak

Imitations proves once again that even after four decades in the game, Mark Lanegan is not an artist content to conform to expectations, but one that will continue crossing borders to indulge his muse.


Mark Lanegan

Imitations

Label: Vagrant
US Release Date: 2013-09-17
UK Release Date: 2013-09-16
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

Mark Lanegan is nothing if not a man of diverse tastes. Influences from across the musical spectrum have shaped his craft since day one, and the gunpowder-voiced bard has never been shy about citing his personal beacons in interviews. Such admiration for the work of his forbearers and peers, and his keen ear for attention, has likewise manifested in Lanegan also being a deft interpreter of others' songs, something he has done since covering Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" on his first solo outing, 1990's The Winding Sheet. With his solo career enjoying a renewed vitality, it is thus fitting that he would choose now to release another covers album.

A tad self-deprecating in its title, Imitations is the third record to bear Lanegan's name in two years (counting Black Pudding, his collaboration with Duke Garwood), marking this as a prolific period in his output, reactive to the eight-year drought in his solo career between 2004's Bubblegum and 2012's Blues Funeral. Unlike the progression of those last two records, Imitations is a return to form in its hushed musical aesthetic, shedding those albums' respective unhinged swamp rock and electronica-meets-blues flavors. Rather, it is a sequel of sorts to Lanegan's first covers record, 1999's I'll Take Care of You, and as such it largely adheres to that album's template while also expanding on it. As with the previous covers album, Imitations sees Lanegan taking a handful of obscure songs from artists and genres not ordinarily associated with each other, plus a few better known cuts, and stripping them down to minimalist reworkings. Differing from I'll Take Care of You's makeup, though, is the added texture of strings evoking '70s ballads and some subtle experimental sonic flourishes.

Kicking the record off is Chelsea Wolfe's "Flatlands", coming through the stereo like a chilly breeze blowing over Kansas plains in a brittle winter. The hypnotic acoustic guitar, each string delicately picked, merges with Lanegan's dusky voice singing lyrics of longing for a lush and fecund terrain now barren. The harmony between the lyrics, Lanegan's delivery and the instrumentation--which includes the first appearance of a string section toward its conclusion--when the narrator realizes what he longs for is "never coming back" perfectly create the sense of desolation in both imagery and mood. The opposite effect, that of full warmth, comes on the song's heels with "She's Gone", a Vern Gosdin tune and not, as has been bafflingly reported, the Hall & Oates number. While the lyrics of mourning a lover's departure keep the mood dour, the country pop arrangement and vocal harmonies prevent it from being overwhelming. Anchoring the song is Lanegan's stunning vocal take, the throaty projection he emits on the chorus and the smoothness in the verses showing a degree of suppleness he hasn't displayed in years.

Another atmospheric shift comes with "Deepest Shade", a Twilight Singers rarity never to appear on an album, written by Lanegan's fellow Gutter Twin Greg Dulli. A nighttime desert setting saturates the piece in its minor piano chords and vibraphone percussion. Haunted with emotional wreckage, it's heartrending when Lanegan croons the refrain: "They say it calls to you / My love, I hope it's true / This deepest shade of blue / My love, I give to you." When the strings come in on the second verse, it enhances the weight rather than giving way to melodrama. From there, Lanegan pays homage to Nancy and Frank Sinatra with back-to-back versions of "You Don't Live Twice" and "Pretty Colors". It's tempting to see Lanegan's choice of the former as a self-conscious wink into his own reputation as a survivor against all odds, while the latter has a slight spaghetti western feel in its brushed drum pattern and harpsichord notes.

Closing out Side One is Nick Cave's "Brompton Oratory", probably the cut that will end up garnering the most attention from fans and critics. It opens with almost baroque instrumentation, folding in a brassy big band element that fades to the background as the vocals take center stage. Musically, it's not as sparse as Cave's original, defined by piano, echoing guitar strumming and a somber trumpet. As personal as the song is in its original form, Lanegan does it justice, his voice more weathered than Cave's, the quivering timbre in it having the worn character of an ancient cathedral's oak walls.

Side Two isn't as immediate or strong as its predecessor. While Lanegan returns some menace to the Kurt Weill-Bertold Brecht standard "Mack the Knife", the highlight of this second half is lead single "I'm Not the Loving Kind", Lanegan going for grandiosity with the John Cale song. Backed by a string section that rises and swells and a choir of backing vocals, Lanegan makes the cut his own, the self-effacing lyrics sounding as though they were penned by him. "You don't believe it, yes it must be true / How I lost all the love I had in you" is a helluva biting double-edged couplet. "Send me please no words of regret / Cause I'm not the loving kind": coming from Lanegan's pipes, the sentiment is that much more lacerating.

Before the album wraps with the cinematic "Autumn Leaves" -- the last of three Andy Williams covers on the release -- Lanegan gets in one of the most experimental entries in his oeuvre, a rendition of Gerard Manset's "Elegie Funebre" sung in the original French. It is a daring move, one that could backfire into ridiculousness, but Lanegan sings it as though it were his native tongue. The support of nervous, paranoia-inducing music and cooing backing vocals give the piece a palpable eeriness. The song stands as a specific example of Lanegan's continued ability to branch out from any perceived comfort zone and break new ground. Imitations as a whole shows this as well, proving once again that even after four decades in the game, Lanegan is not an artist content to conform to expectations, but will continue crossing borders to indulge his muse.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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