Lost Record of the Week: Paint it Black: An Alt-Country Tribute to the Rolling Stones
Time to revisit this column, since I’m starting to find little windows of time where I can go back to my record collection and review old/lost stuff.
This album raises the perennial question of what a cover song should do. Should it be an interesting, unpredictable interpretation of the original? Should it adhere to the stylistic conditions set out by the first song? Should it draw attention to the musical value of the original, either by being so bad that you want nothing more than to hear it and erase the cover from your ears, or by revealing that the material is so rich, it can be reconfigured in a new style without losing its fundamental appeal?
Well, Paint it Black does all of these things, leaving the listener in a bit of a confused state when it’s done. The very idea of framing Stones songs in an alt-country style is good, and not much of a stretch for some of the later 1960s/early 1970s material. There are expected classics on here like “Wild Horses” and “Torn and Frayed;” “Moonlight Mile” also lends itself well to an alt-country makeover, and I could even see “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (which Giant Sand does an interesting version of) working. Those who didn’t choose an obvious Stones song to smush into country’s parameters were brave, and came up with some unique interpretations.
The album starts off with Great Lake Swimmers’ version of “Before They Make Me Run.” I wouldn’t normally equate Tony Dekker’s sweet demeanour and quiet voice with Mick Jagger, but whatever. It works, has a nice chugging rhythm that sits under the melody and Dekker fills out the chorus with some well-placed harmonies. The violin solo is a bit of a downer, but it goes by quickly. GLS is followed by Matthew Ryan’s “Streets of Love.” This pair of songs sets the tone for the album. Even though it picks up a few songs in, these two, with their understated vocal performances, sparse arrangements, and slow pace, tell you that the album will be more of an adaptation than a tribute.
Up next is the Cowboy Junkies with “Moonlight Mile.” Good choice for them, they can pull off the orchestral bombast of the original without making it sound like a direct copy, and Margo Timmins’ voice is perfect for the haunting melody. The Bittersweets continue the trend of slowing down the originals in “Loving Cup” as does Hem with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” but there’s a nice pedal steel in the background adding some colour to the piano-dominated arrangement. There’s a tendency in this, and all the songs, to highlight the vocals – a common approach to mixing alt-country I think – which gives the words more attention. The vocals are too often obscured in the original Stones recordings, and it’s nice to hear some pretty smart lyrics stand out.
Everest’s “Sweet Virginia” is a relatively faithful cover, as are Ivo Matos’s “Wild Horses” and Lee Harvey Osmond’s “Dear Doctor,” which is one of my favourite Stones songs. Lee Harvey Osmond retain the rollicking accompaniment and kind of messy desperation in the lyrics, and there’s nice disparity between the two voices in timbre and register. Similarly, the instrumental parts are replicated almost exactly on Over the Rhine’s version of “Waiting on a Friend,” but Karin Bergquist’s voice is a beautiful addition, a welcome change from the roughness that is present in Jagger’s vocals.
I really like The Handsome Family’s “Faraway Eyes.” Was the original inspired by Gram Parsons’ “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man”? I don’t know the history, but there’s a connection there that I just noticed recently. I like the juxtaposition of moods in Brian Ritchey’s version of “Paint It Black” – this is one of those instances where messing around with the original really works.
But overall, I’m not totally crazy about the album. It kind of felt like eating a salad when you’re really hungry. Each bit tastes nice and it’s good for you, but it’s not really satisfying. In a sense, the individual songs don’t totally work because they don’t always meet that middle ground of retaining the flavour of the original and adding an interpretive twist that characterizes the new style and artist. Maybe the compilation succeeds as a set of covers because those two ends of the cover spectrum are met by the whole package of the album. I feel like the essential component of the Stones, their raw energy and the excitement in those early archetypal rock songs, is missing here. What this album did, though, in revealing the naked material of the songs, was make me go back to the Stones’ originals, which has made for a good week of listening.