So much has been happening in London in the last few weeks that it would be virtually impossible to register it all. There was the London Film Festival, then the London Festival of Animation with its extraordinary session of Polish 3D productions realised in the state-of-the-art studios Platige Image, several excellent exhibitions including the most recent show of Pop Art at the Barbican Centre and a few outdoor fairs with a cultural twist. In the musical field, however, I haven’t been lucky enough to attend anything particularly worth of attention. Until the last weekend.
On Friday, 8 November, the Union Chapel in Islington hosted a very special event. Mark Lanegan accompanied by excellent guitarist Jeff Fielder and special guest Duke Garwood, a British multi-instrumentalist and root musician known to Lanegan fans mainly for the collaboration on “Black Pudding”, performed as part of promotional tour for the album “Imitations” released earlier this month. Sold out within the first few weeks after the announcement, it was a one of a kind show, a real treat for any Seattle scene admirer. The locale, a restored Victorian church which now simultaneously serves the purpose of a live music venue, a catholic and protestant temple and a centre for the homeless, has been recently voted the best music space in London. Its excellent acoustics and unique atmosphere undoubtedly added to the charm of the night, wonderfully enhancing the inimitable spirit of Mark Lanegan’s music.
The former frontman of the grunge band Screaming Trees started his solo career in 1989 with the remarkable album “The Winding Sheet” produced by the industry’s guru Jack Endino and released by the legendary Seattle-based label, Subpop. Recognized for his notable baritone, at once as rough as sandpaper and as velvety as peach skin, Lanegan is one of the most enigmatic and multi-faceted figures in the music industry. While the singer’s grim looks suggest a dark, almost dangerous personality, his lyrics and intensity of expression point to a great sensitivity of a mature man whose life hasn’t always been a straight line.
Having already released six solo albums based on his own material and one consisting exclusively of covers, last year Lanegan decided to repeat the experiment of the 99’s “I’ll Take Care of You”, which drew on his deep interest in root music, and put together a second album of reinterpretations, this time taking on a selection of crooner songs from the 60s and 70s, originally performed by Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Nick Cave, Bobby Darin and Hall & Oates. Cover albums, bearing a mark of an inferior art form, rarely occupy a prominent position in a musician’s career. Lanegan, however, once again proves that not only isn’t there anything shameful about this sort of production, but quite the contrary – it may be an excellent opportunity to reveal own influences and sentiments while adding a new dimension to a classical piece. And so, stripping the outmoded hits from unnecessary adornments, he cuts straight to their core, uncovering the universal beauty beneath a dusty surface.
Besides the old standards such as Pretty Colours, Solitaire and Mack the Knife, Mark found inspiration in the body of work of some contemporary artists (Greg Dulli, his creative partner from The Gutter Twins, and the revelation of the last years, Chelsea Wolfe), as well as from the avant-garde New York scene (John Cale). At the memorable concert at the Union Chapel, he also paid tribute to Lou Reed who passed away on 27th October leaving behind a trace of followers and loyal fans. Delivered in a slightly breaking, husky voice, Lanegan’s version of Satellite of Love, one of the most beloved Lou’s songs, beautifully maintained its original spirit while reflecting the interpreter’s mysterious personality.
In the review concerning the singer’s newest work, The Guardian’s journalist Michael Haan wrote the following lines: “(…) it’s lightweight stuff, and the artier items on the list don’t add ballast. Taken as the simplest of pleasures, though, “Imitations” succeeds on anyone’s terms.” Well, as an exceptionally strong-willed and free-spirited artist, Mark Lanegan has always done whatever pleased him, never overly preoccupying himself with the opinion of the surrounding world. “Imitations” is the ultimate proof of this attitude. I just wanted to make a record that had the same feeling that a lot of those records that I heard when I was younger, those Sixties pop styles had. (…) All the songs on the record I chose because I loved them, and I thought it would be fun to sing them. And they were, he said in an interview. Lightweight stuff? Yes, in most part it is. But in what a delightful rendition! Say what you will but in my view Solitaire, Mack the Knife, Pretty Colors, You Only Live Twice and Autumn Leaves in Mark’s minimalist, slightly abrasive delivery by far surpass the originals. “Imitations” may be not the greatest of his achievements, although – in the first place – I don’t think it was even meant to enter the competition. No doubt “Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, “Blues Funeral” or “Black Pudding” outdo this record in terms of content, which is just another evidence of Lanegan’s value as a lyricist whose previous work set so high the expectations that a cover album of crooner songs simply cannot match. Still, “Imitations” is an important and rewarding musical proposal from an outstanding artist who never stops redefining himself, constantly revealing unexpected aspects of his inner self.
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