One of the worst pieces of music I’ve heard this year, I think, would have to be the Manic Street Preachers’ cover version of Rihanna’s “Umbrella”. It’s part of a grisly tradition: guitar bands – usually some plodders like Biffy Clyro, possibly working at the behest of Jo Whiley – indie-fying a pop hit.
The idea, I suppose, is to prove that, actually, they have a tremendously post-modern affection for allegedly “disposable” pop music beyond the allegedly “authentic” realities of their seventh-on-the-bill-at-Reading careers. The reality, as it happens, is a band effortlessly showing the prosaic limitations of their sound, in contrast to, say, the excellent gleaming contours of the Rihanna original.
Sorry for the rant, but I mention this because I have here the new album from Greg Weeks of Espers. It’s good – which is why I’m writing about it – but it’s briefly spoiled by a cover of Madonna’s “Borderline”. While I like a few things by Rihanna, or by Britney Spears (whose “Hit Me Baby One More Time” has been butchered by guitar ironists more often than most), I’m no fan of Madonna, so I’m not exactly outraged by Weeks desecrating a sacred pop text.
But his cover of “Borderline” does him no favours because, in transforming the song into a typically Espers-ish eldritch dirge, Weeks inadvertently reveals the simplicity of his schtick: sing anything slowly enough, in a mournful and slightly dislocated tone, and it’ll sound like this. So much for the idea of mystique and songwriting craft, when you can easily come up with a reductive formula.
It’s a shame, because “The Hive” is a nice record. I must admit I haven’t heard any of Weeks’ previous solo albums, but this one – initially, at least – doesn’t seem hugely different from the way that Espers sound. Plenty of Espers actually figureon “The Hive” – with the notable exception, though, of Meg Baird – and apparently the version of “Borderline” was originally slated for another Espers covers record, as yet unscheduled.
One difference, maybe, is that these elegant pieces of dronefolk seem to be anchored by keyboards more than guitars; there’s a long list of Arps, Wurlitzers, Fender Rhodes, Korgs and, most prominently, Mellotrons in the credits. Cleverly, though, Weeks and his accomplices manage to make this array of humming, creaky antique kit work in the same way as the thicket of psych guitars on, especially, “Espers II”.
As Orion Rigel Dommisse’s flute leads into the opening “You Won’t Be The Same Ever Again”, or the fol-de-rolling “Funhouse”, or Weeks’ acoustic and the Espers cellos navigate a route through the outstanding analogue gloaming of “The Lamb’s Path”, there’s a familiar sense of medieval-tinged otherness. Then “Lay Low” comes along and gently confounds stereotypes, with a languidly groovy fuzz guitar line that’s as close to the Isley Brothers as it is to one of Weeks’ more constant influences, Ghost.
Weeks’ voice can be a bit thin at times, and he misses the counterpoint of Meg Baird, but this is still a fine album, “Borderline” notwithstanding. Weeks is clearly trying to expand his range and sound – “Not Meant For Light”, for instance, is delicately-handled Laurel Canyon folk-pop – while sticking with the atmospherics and pacing that have served him so well thus far. Evidently, there’s life in acid-folk yet. . .