So what do Abba’s first #1 single in Costa Rica, Ann Peeble’s follow-up single to ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’, the Mark Lanegan track that contains the title of his 2003 mini LP, the thunderous first track on Killing Joke’s debut album and the student disco classic that I stole the title of this post from, all have in common?
A lesser mortal would not know and there is no shame in that mortal, none at all; whereas I, would look you in the eye and state boldly and clearly in my low, manly voice that they were the five tracks covered by Smoke Fairies on their 2012 mini-LP This is a Reflection. Issued as a promotional thingy in a limited edition of 300 copies only in the run up to the release of their third LP Blood Speaks, the first 100 copies were signed by the ladies and I was quick enough off the mark to land one of those, besotted as I was by the excellent Through Low Light and Trees.
Smoke Fairies get lumped in with the folk crowd and I can understand why but there has always been an interesting steely Americana running through their veins, stopping everything getting a little too hey-nonny-nonny, keeping it way more interesting. This peaked with Blood Speaks but you can hear the evolution happening in slo-mo on This Is a Reflection. Now I’m no fan of covers LPs at all, usually they’re either contractual obligation jobbies, or just a sign of inspiration running critically dry no matter how much the artist perjures themselves about how much they ‘just wanted to pay tribute our inspirations’. This LP comes over more as an exercise in seeing how they can bend and warp some rather diverse tracks into their oeuvre, with some pretty mixed results.
Ann Peebles I only knew from ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’, one of John Lennon’s favourite ever singles, the follow-up ‘Do I Need You’ is cut from very similar cloth indeed, albeit with a heavier funkier bass and some rather filthy brass – this is recent knowledge, I’d never heard it until yesterday but unfortunately it has so annihilated the Smoke Fairies version, that I just can’t listen to it now. The cover has a good guitar groove but the voice is so much weaker and higher, it just comes over as far too chaste compared to the original, which is a raunchy wet weekend of a song.
Next up we have Mark Lanegan’s ‘Wish You Well’, which again suffers from not-low-enough syndrome and to be fair I’m a dude and I struggle to reach Mr Lanegan’s range, he makes me sound like Geddy Lee. The track is again really well-played and rather slinky but lacks the dead-eyed junkie gravitas of the original, which is fine but it doesn’t substitute anything of its’ own to take up the slack. All fine, but a bit coffee shop for my tastes.
One of my all-time favourite songs to jump around a dancefloor to, ‘She Sells Sanctuary’ gets much more of a makeover from Smoke Fairies and is a much better cover as a result. With a skittering drum beat and a neat take on the vocal harmonies it brings out unseen reserves of disquiet and resolve from the lyrics. Now this is how a cover should be, an interpretation rather than an impression. This is not the version I want to mindlessly twirl around to, but it is the version I would use to soundtrack the trailer for a moody Danish detective series involving lots of rain*.
Now as any fool knows ‘The Visitors’ was ABBA’s first Costa Rican #1, I’d imagine they went nuts for its cold war politics in downtown Puerto Limón. Personally I can’t stand ABBA and so this track was a bit of a hard sell for me but I do quite like it, there is a mounting sense of paranoia amongst the harmonies that sounds something akin to a put-upon housewife in the throes of cracking up, in a genteel manner. This is A Reflection closes with a clever cover of Killing Joke’s mighty ‘Requiem’ and replaces the edgy apocalyptic brashness of the original with something a lot more considered and downbeat.
These tracks may be reflections but the straight ones are the least successful ones here, the ones glimpsed in the funhouse mirrors? twisted and changed, those are the ones to go for.
*because they all do.