Gender-bending is as old as performance, dating back long before Ray Davies wondered why Lola walked like a woman but talked like a man. On In a World of Him, longtime Mekons vocalist Sally Timms tries walking a mile in a man's shoes, covering nine songs written by men without changing the gender pronouns. As usual, her distinctly English take on Appalachian country via crunching, squealing post-punk will turn a few hipsters' ears, but even her unforgettable vocals can't keep this album from being a little disappointing.
For starters, the girl-singing-boy's-songs conceit isn't exactly novel. As recently as 2001, Tori Amos performed songs by Tom Waits, Neil Young, the Velvet Underground and Eminem for her Strange Little Girls album. Amos got the idea from Canadian singer/songwriter Emm Gryner, whose Girl Versions turned tunes by Blur, Fugazi, and the Clash into piano ballads. Besides, Timms herself doesn't bother to bring wholly new material to this outing; her version of "Corporal Chalkie" is almost identical to the one she sang on the Mekons' Punk Rock earlier this year. Yeah, it's an irresistibly corrosive tune, whoever sings it, but on an album with only nine tracks, it's hard to see why she'd duplicate a track her fans probably just bought a few months ago (for the record, the rawer Punk Rock version is better).
Amos's album exposed the brutal ways men treat women in song, while Gryner took a more lighthearted approach (she also did "Pour Some Sugar on Me"). Timms celebrates her subjects, imbuing them with mournful dignity. Hers would be the house band at an indie-rock wake somewhere in West Virginia. A bunch of Mekons would likely be there, and they show up on In the World of Him here, too: Jon Langford reprises the spoken word bit on "Corporal Chalkie", and the whole crew backs "Bomb", a cynical synth-laden take on the Mekons' nugget. Of course, that's probably because the version is almost the same as the one on the Mekons' United in 1995, which the band recycled again in a twangier version for 1999's I Have Been to Heaven and Back, Vol. 1. It's a great song, however they perform it, but it's as stale as video-store candy. Of course, Timms sings on all three recordings, and once again, the current version is the blandest.
She's a talented vocalist and interpreter, so the album is not without charm. Her cover of Ryan Adams's "Fools We Are as Men" has a world-weary soulfulness it's tough for anyone who's heard Rock N Roll to imagine Adams still possessing (prove me wrong, Ryan; prove me wrong). But overall, the disc feels depressingly gimmicky: an underwhelming entry in the catalogue of a singer who should know better.