Illustration from Cora Lane Sherman's The Redemption of Marie Gordon #10, 1926
My love of gimmicky concept albums is well documented, and I think I've even defended covers albums at various points. I'll admit that I'm pretty psyched that the Mates of State are putting out a covers album this summer - I only really worry about a covers album if the artist behind it has a limited grasp of musical interpretation that would yield uninteresting results (see The Spaghetti Incident?) A covers album devoted to a single artist, like (for instance) Nilsson Sings Newman, is an interesting phenomenon as well, because it can give a musician an opportunity for a long-form interpretation of another artist's work. Which brings us to That Skinny Motherf***er with the High Voice? (another covers album with a question mark at the end of its title - could be some kind of pattern!)
That Skinny Motherf***er with the High Voice? (the title is a line from Prince's song "Bob George") is an album of Prince covers by Yo La Tengo's James McNew, who does occasional solo projects under the name Dump. Originally released on cassette by Shrimper Records in '99, the album was released on CD a couple years later. Its twelve songs primarily come from Prince's early-to-mid-'80s recordings, including some big singles ("1999", "Raspberry Beret") and some b-sides ("Erotic City", "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore?"). McNew has a good feel for what makes Prince's music unique, and he uses his lo-fi resources to produce 4-track solo recordings that emphasize Prince's lyrics and melodies. When he tries to do too much, layering guitars on "Raspberry Beret" and crowding the arrangement of "When U Were Mine" with a busy harpsichord sample, the songs get sludgy-sounding but still retain their charm.
When McNew strips the songs way down to skeletal arrangements, they work even better. "The Beautiful Ones" and "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore?" feature little more than McNew's wispy tenor over guitar and drum machine, but they don't sound like demos. And "Pop Life" benefits so much from this treatment that I find the cover superior to the original - it has a delicacy and vulnerability that I seldom find in Prince's persona- and production-heavy arrangements.
That Skinny Motherf***er with the High Voice? has a run of questionable, sample-heavy drones in its second half that drag the album down, though - I was particularly sad to hear one of my Prince favorites, "Girls + Boys", given this treatment, and the 7-minute "A Love Bizarre" is almost unlistenable (why is it even on here? It's a Sheila E. song!) Overall, though, Dump produces a solid covers album - the song selection avoids the pitfall of using too many (or too few) "hits", and the reinterpretations never seem labored, focusing on the elements that make the songs special.
"Pop Life" by Dump