Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Various Artists: (AHK-toong BAY-bi) Covered Review

(AHK-toong BAY-bi) Covered (I see what you did there) highlights the joys and peril that can be found on compilation albums. This atrociously named record features some big names paying tribute to what I believe is U2's greatest album and apart from the proceeds on the sale of the album going to charity, there are at least four or five great covers here that are worth your money.

The real joy or sorrow on this record can be how attached you are to the original record. For example, Zoo Station on Achtung was a shock for U2 fans - framed by a soaring buzzsaw riff that alerted fans to the fact they were listening to a new iteration of the band. Named after the Bahnhof Zoo in Berlin, it seems that Nine Inch Nails uses the Trans Europe Express to get there as Reznor takes an icy Kraftwerk approach to the song. To be honest, it could have used a bit more of NIN's distorted grit to set it on fire and it appears to be a understated meditation rather than grand narrative changing statement it was conceived as.

This isn't to say that direct homage is necessary as the best tracks on the compilation swing between faithful renditions to total deconstructions. In the former camp, Glasvegas make a fair fist of Acrobat while the Killers come closest to actually sounding like U2 on Ultra Violet but more based on their stadium ambitions than sound. In the other camp, Depeche Mode* turn So Cruel into a subterranean hymn which resonates with the same sadness of the original. It is an elegant re-imagining which is probably born from the Mode being the closest fellow travellers to U2 on the record. I would imagine remaking Mysterious Ways would be a challenge for any band but surprisingly Snow Patrol's deconstruction and slow build approach to the track is strikingly effective. However, the best track on the record is easily Jack White's Love is Blindness. The standout song on the original record, White brings the crazy and turns it into the unfettered primal scream that it was always meant to be.

The record features some songs which are ok but I find problematic. Damien Rice's cover of One is a delicate acoustic waltz which is beautiful but let down by his decision to change the narrator's perspective. So for example, the original went:

Did I disappoint you
Or leave a bad taste in your mouth
You act like you never had love
And you want me to go without

Rice's version goes

Did I disappoint you
leave a bad taste in my mouth
I act like I never had love
And I want you to go without

Ultimately, this detracts from the song and makes it seem far more egocentric than the original. If you can ignore this, it is an achingly beautiful cover but what is it with sad acoustic folk singers who want to make the drama all about them? Patti Smith makes a noir vamp out of Until The End Of The World which is more interesting than enjoyable while Garbage's cover of Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses sounds exactly as you imagine it would. Gavin Friday's The Fly is a little perplexing, seemingly too much studio time and too little focus, it's all over the place.

The only two real misfires on the record are by the Fray and U2 themselves. The Fray are a pop band that try to make Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World into an FM radio ready drive time hit - it fails on every level. The Jacques Lu Cont mix of Even Better Than The Real Thing turns the original song into a thumping disco number which highlight how great Bono's original vocals were but little else. U2 have dabbled with dance remixes throughout their career but I can never remember any of them being particularly successful (and let's not mention Pop - ever).

Ultimately, this is a pretty good collection of songs but as expected none of them come close to the original record. If anything, it actually highlights how great Achtung Baby is and that in retrospect, it is a miracle that record exists after the self destructive impulses of Rattle and Hum. Again, for me, it depended on how attached I was to a notion or intent of the original as to how much I enjoyed the cover which is probably unfair but I hardly care about what's fair. More a curio for U2 fans than a satisfying record in its own right, the highlights are indeed great and worth a listen.

*I could write a thesis about why I think Depeche Mode tried and failed to have an Achtung Baby-like reinvention on Songs of Love and Devotion. However, I choose not to...


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