As covers saturate the pop and indie spheres, it is refreshing to see an artist balance parody and originality.
It isn’t clear when the guilt of guilty pleasures began to recede and make way for hipster pride in openly expressing delight in populist pleasures. Most any trendy nightclub DJ set or scenester’s iPod playlist reveals that it has become hip to be unhip and mainstream. Journey and REO Speedwagon fascination can be blamed on nostalgia gone wild. And affection for pop stars like Britney Spears’s singles is oft validated, or at least attempted at, by citing respect for the guest producer. With this in mind, what happens when a critically respected musician reinterprets the so-called guilty pleasures? Is it clever kitsch or reimaginings that reveal something lurking under the music video glitz? In the case of jazz multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee’s Hits the Hits, it’s both.
The opening cover of OutKast’s “Hey Ya” is given the Ramsey Lewis treatment, much thanks to assistance from keyboardist Mick Talbot of Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Though for some listeners it may be too soon and too similar to the original, which went from sounding so good to so annoying so fast. The melancholy and bittersweet rhythms of Blur’s “Out of Time” are brought up slightly more to front, but Lee’s version is mostly different only in the absence of lyrics. The single from Blur’s Think Tank wasn’t much of a hit, especially in the states, but hearing the calypso melody in its fullness excuses any Billboard faux pas. If only Kelis would allow herself to get as funky as Lee’s reworking of “Trick Me”. It is in this and his stripped down version of Justin Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body” that Lee succeeds. He highlights the finer elements of the hits and shows the daring that these mainstream artists and their in-the-know producers only flirt with. The brass that ends “Trick Me” to make way for Parliament-like thumping on “Rock Your Body” is nothing to smirk at.
With his array of vintage equipment and appreciation for Ramsey Lewis, there is the temptation for Lee fall into a kitchsy soul version of Richard Cheese. But Lee’s ability to break away from his safe zone as he does with the surf rock version of Missy Elliot’s “Get UR Freak On” points to a hybrid of tongue-in-cheek wit and true appreciation. The growling to get one's freak on over a taut "Surf Rider"-like jam is a highlight. Then the psychedelic interpretation of Britney Spears’s “Toxic” changes the album’s direction completely. Those that found the original’s opening screeching interesting (No, not God’s own guilty blond pleasure) will likely be entranced by their dominance through Lee’s crafty use of the sitar. In the same way Travis was able to make “Hit Me Baby One More Time” sound like something created from the heart, not a calculating computer, Lee’s “Let Me Blow Your Mind” forms something sincere. And that is a challenge considering the well-placed banjo strumming that takes the Gwen Stefani and Eve cover from clever to brilliant.
Like many cover albums, Hits the Hits is a mixed bag. Covers of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” and Gorillaz' “Clint Eastwood” are pleasant but not much more than jazzy instrumentals. And the cover of Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” is ideal for the lounge scene, but nowhere as original as the Flaming Lips’ take. Still, the project is an interesting break from Lee’s original work, with the most recent being the hit-and-miss Voices and Choices. As covers saturate the pop and indie spheres, it is refreshing to see an artist balance parody and originality.