You could listen for a long time to Marianne Faithfull singing “Down From Dover” before you identified the author of the song. As Faithfull delivers it, “Dover” is a maudlin thing, slightly soulful, and faintly funky in a Southern way. Leave the voice out of it, and it sounds like a companion piece to “Ode To Billy Joe”, though Faithfull and Bobbie Gentry are not easily confused. Structurally, “Down From Dover” is a song without a chorus, and a verse which is ominous to the point of being literally dreadful. So, even before Faithfull reaches the part of the narrative in which the singer reveals the stillbirth of a baby fathered by an absent, careless father, the dire outcome of the lyric is never in doubt. It is a story that’s always going to end badly.
Who would give life to a song this black, this hopeless? You might guess Nick Cave. But “Down From Dover” was written by Dolly Parton. And that, really, is what Hal Willner does. As a producer, he’s noted for his extravagantly realised tribute albums, in which unsuitable artists remake the music of improbable songwriters. When this process works, as it mostly does, the negatives cancel each other out, and the song is reborn.
Of course, Faithfull and Willner go back a long way. The singer and the producer first met in 1982, and Willner manned the desk on two of her best records, Blazing Away and Strange Weather. Willner understands – perhaps better than the singer herself – how to get the best out of Faithfull. This is a matter of direction as much as production. Again, there’s an element of counter-intuitiveness in play, since Faithfull is nobody’s idea of a technically gifted singer. Bluntly, her voice is wrecked, but rather than shy away from this, Willner makes a virtue of it. Faithfull’s voice is a tough muscle, harder than it is pretty. It doesn’t really matter how it got that way, whether through cigarettes or whisky or cocaine: the sound it makes now is one of endurance and strength. It’s stoneground, and oddly harsh for a woman. Easy Come Easy Go is a sequel of sorts to Strange Weather.
It is a covers album in which the predictable choices (in thrall to Billie Holiday on “Solitude”, Sarah Vaughan on “Black Coffee”, or duetting with a heavy-breathing Jarvis Cocker on “Somewhere”), are outnumbered by the shocks. “Dear God, Please Help Me” really is the Morrissey song, but Faithfull delivers it as a hymn to decrepitude without any of the author’s archness. (Apparently, Lou Reed suggested it, which is almost too much information.) Yes, “Hold On, Hold On” is the Neko Case song, and Chan Marshall does a lovely job on harmonies, but the ’60s twang of the original is pulled into a new shape by the psychedelic droning of Sean Lennon and Barry Reynolds’ guitars and Warren Ellis’ ritual torture of the electric violin (Willner calls his solo “Hendrix meets Alice Coltrane”).
The eerie sensation you get on listening to “How Many Worlds” is only partly explained by the dawning realisation that this actually is the Brian Eno song, albeit delivered in a spirit of blatant disregard for the ambient rhyming of the original. And there’s a lovely moment when Faithfull’s forceful retooling of the traditional “Kimbie” (much more Mark Lanegan than it is Nick Drake) fades into a verse of “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground” (which Willner previously revisited on his tribute to Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music.)
It’s an extravagantly orchestrated set, but with Marc Ribot as lead guitarist and the Dirty Three’s Jim White on drums, the playing remains off-kilter, to quite thrilling effect. True, there are moments when Willner overreaches with his urge to subvert, notably on Smokey Robinson’s “Ooh Baby Baby”: Steven Bernstein’s arrangement comes over all Barry White, with Ribot’s wah-wah pedal indulging a previously suppressed love of blaxploitation soundtracks, but the mood is squandered by the sudden appearance of Antony Hegarty, sounding ever more like a bewildered eunuch. And Traffic’s “Many A Mile To Freedom” comes and goes to little effect.
But wait! There’s Nick Cave offering grim harmonies on The Decemberists’ “The Crane Wife 3”, and the strange, deathly rattle that accompanies Faithfull on Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” is none other than Keith Richards, reprising a tune he used to play with Gram Parsons. This reading is inspired by the solo version Richards performed on a 1977 Toronto bootleg. Granted, Keith is no Gram, Marianne is no Emmylou, and it sounds nothing like Merle. But it is haggard, almost derelict, and defiantly beautiful.
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