Two new releases -- a reissue of the Beau Brummels' third LP and a compilation of Nina Simone's pop flirtations -- spotlight great performers turning in sub-par covers of '60s pop.
The Beau Brummels' third album, Beau Brummels '66, was a fairly innocuous collection of contemporary folk-rock covers when it was first released a little over 40 years ago, and time hasn't revised that assessment. If anything, the record is even more of an unnecessary specimen now than ever before, because in 2007 there's hardly a need for by-the-book carbon copies of familiar pop hits of decades past, not to mention from a perspective that lacks the benefit of hindsight.
At the time, the Brummels, an up-and-coming San Francisco band with a few hits under their belt ("Laugh, Laugh" and "Just a Little", both of them produced by a fellow Bay Area musician, Sly Stone), had recently seen their contract with Autumn Records, a financially-troubled independent, bought out by Warner Bros. Eager to get a major-label debut on the street, Warner Bros. pushed for the all-covers concept, especially since some of the songs included had already been recorded. The song choice was a fairly routine overview of modern British and American fare: the Beatles ("You've Got to Hide Your Love Away", "Yesterday"), Bob Dylan ("Mr. Tambourine Man"), the Rolling Stones ("Play with Fire"), some garage-rock hootenannies ("Louie, Louie", "Hang on Sloopy") and other random picks from the mid-'60s ether (Herman's Hermits' "Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter", Simon & Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound", Lee Hazlewood's "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'").
A few songs work surprisingly well, given the circumstances: Sonny Bono's "Bang Bang" is rendered wiry and nervous, and "Play with Fire" is perhaps even eerier than the Stones' original. For the most part, Beau Brummels '66 pointlessly spins the talents of the band -- notably guitarist/songwriter Ron Elliott and singer Sal Valentino -- like wheels in mud. It stinks of a quick fix, and furthermore, may have been somewhat to blame for the stall in the Brummels' once-promising career, which fizzled out a few years later -- what could be a more inappropriate release at a moment of commercial truth than this?
Nina Simone, on the other hand, was no stranger to cover songs, and she exhibited a masterful interpretative streak in the halls of jazz, pop, and soul alike. A new compilation of '60s pop covers by Simone, Just Like a Woman: Nina Simone Sings Classic Songs of the '60s, finds her covering ground similar to that of Beau Brummels '66: Dylan is well represented ("I Shall Be Released", "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues", the title track) and the Beatles get a nod with "Here Comes the Sun". But Simone favored the poetic, so garage rock and one-off pop fascinations are replaced by songs like Randy Newman's biting "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" and Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne".
Different people gravitate to different periods of Simone's eclectic career, from her years at Bethlehem and Candix to Philips and RCA, but not many choose her dissection of '60s pop as her best. For one thing, there's a pretty significant gap between Simone's nuanced sensibility and the varying cultural significances of the material, and her performances do little to bridge that gap. Her delivery on "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" is a little too theatrical, her arrangement of "Here Comes the Sun" a bit too soft-lensed, and though she brings dancing melody to "Suzanne", the buoyancy fights against the torrent of lyrics. She does, however, nail "House of the Rising Sun", a traditional made famous by the Animals, by hotwiring it as a gospelized blues tune; and she approaches "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" with a surprising tenderness that even Dylan himself could not find.
Simone reserved her greatest respect for Dylan, and it shows in the diversity of his material that she covered (she sang more of his songs than what's here, including "The Ballad of Hollis Brown" and "The Times They Are A-Changing'"). She wasn't always on target with her picks -- "Just Like a Woman" is all fluff and no bite, and "I Shall Be Released" comes off as a sub-par Band imitation -- but she sang for love of the song, not to simply assimilate with a younger crowd that she didn't otherwise understand. Still, Just Like a Woman is far from Simone's finest hour of interpretation. Makes you wonder if maybe she and the Beau Brummels were both taking advice from the same misinformed seer.