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I feel it’s time for us to make up, baby.

August 11, 2009

I have a general rule for my “Overdue Reconsiderations” series — the album in question has to be at least 10 years old, because I feel that’s an appropriate time for glowing reviews to turn positively nasty (see: NME or Q magazines’ evolution of mindset on Kula Shaker’s K). Of course, in today’s age of digital downloads and computer music libraries quickly amassing so much music that you might not well remember a song you downloaded last week, this time frame is exponentially shrinking.

My review today is spurred somewhat by the general aloofness of the public, but moreso because even among Paul Weller fans, his 2004 album Studio 150 is pretty much openly dismissed as a complete waste of his studio time and our collective earnings. And I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.

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Paul Weller
Studio 150
V2, 2004

01. If I Could Only Be Sure
02. Wishing on a Star
03. Don’t Make Promises
04. The Bottle
05. Black is the Colour
06. Close To You
07. Early Morning Rain
08. One Way Road
09. Hercules
10. Thinking of You
11. All Along the Watchtower
12. Birds

Ah, the covers album. Historically, is there a better way for any artist to publicly concede they’re fresh out of good ideas? Oh sure, they sugarcoat the promotional junket with easily digestible (and somewhat believable) quotes such as, “I just wanted to pay a bit of respect to songs that I grew up loving” or “I wanted to turn a few more people onto what a songwriter genius (insert said unknown/underrated/overrated artist name here) was.” Sure you did.

That’s why Paul McCartney did Run Devil Run immediately after his beloved wife’s death, right? Nothing to do with the fact that he’s an intensely private man when it comes to his emotions and he didn’t want a lot of people reading too deeply into his lyrics and analyzing his state of mind. That’s why The The followed the genius of Dusk with a Hank Williams covers album, right? Nothing to do with critical or self-inflicted pressure to top a universally well-received (if not well selling album) by reinterpreting songs everyone’s known for 50 years. I mean, nobody rates Hank Williams too highly, do they?

Bullsh*t. If a covers album is not an artist clumsily trying to hide the fact that they’re going through a particularly nasty case of writer’s block, then it’s an artist not-so-clumsily trying to find their way out of a recording contract they no longer find favorable. Unless you’ve already staked your claim as a covers act, there are three acceptable times and places for the odd cover:

  • On a single’s B-side
  • Tucked (very sparingly) into an LP

OR

  • Shrewdly inserted into a live set

You don’t rile your fans up with news of a new album, only to then announce it’s going to be a set of songs we could probably find elsewhere and build a DIY mix. The, “Oooh, I wonder how they’ll do THAT song” novelty only lasts so long.

And if you’re a Paul Weller fan, having THAT song be the f*cking Carpenters’ “Close To You” or an obscure Oasis B-side likely rubbed you the wrong way right from the first press release stating the album’s tracklist.

It’s not that the man is bad at interpreting songs. If anything, he’s actually really good at it. Most fans will have known that since his Jam days, when the 17-year-old Weller was cocky enough to put a punked up cover of the “Batman” theme on the Jam’s debut album. Their subsequent readings of the Chi-Lites “Stoned Out of My Mind,” Peggy Lee’s “Fever” and the Who’s “So Sad About Us” were all well appreciated and are still great to hear on any odds and ends collection. The Style Council’s whacks at the likes of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” turned out great, and Weller’s covers in his solo career have always been pretty damn good (I’ve always loved his version of “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City”).

But the unifying theme of all the aforementioned tracks was that they showed up on B-sides or in radio or live sets. There were no proper cover albums to speak of, really, until Disc 3 of the 2003 solo Weller odds and ends box set, Fly on the Wall, compiled all his solo years covers for a playfully titled collection called “Button Downs” (for those of you who don’t get it, I’ll just cough and point you toward David Bowie).

And that’s probably what got Weller thinking, “F*ck me, these were actually fun. I should do a whole album like that. Lot easier than writing new stuff.”

So the Modfather headed to Amsterdam with his trusty crew of Steve White on drums, Steve Cradock on guitar and Damon Minchella on bass and whiled away a few weeks cherry picking his record collection.

And if any of these songs had ended up on B-sides, Weller fans likely would have snatched every copy before they went out of print and driven up after-the-fact eBay auctions to ridiculous asking prices. Weller buries “Wishing on a Star” in smoke-covered soul, completely annihilating the version Rose Royce made famous with smooth lounge tones. “One Way Road,” one of Noel Gallagher’s very best and most overlooked B-sides, gets a New Orleans treatment that somehow works and challenges the original in power, and he easily matches (if not betters) the groove Sister Sledge first found for “Thinking of You.”

To his credit, he tries to find a new direction with the aforementioned “Close To You” and lightly dismissed it in subsequent interviews as a joke for his kids’ sake (and your legions of fans thank you for that, Paul). Still, the fact is the couplet of “Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near?” comes at anybody’s credibility with all the destructive force of a medieval battering ram.

“Black is the Colour” is the kind of moody cover better left to early 20-somethings with thick-rimmed glasses in coffeehouses and Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” should have been the first “Yeah, BUT…” that every journalist posed when Weller claimed he chose the songs on the album because he felt they could be done better (thus “gracefully” explaining the absence of any Beatles, Small Faces or Kinks material).

Had this album been released in some box set or tactless posthumous collection years down the road, it probably would be looked at in the light Weller wanted — a guy proving he can put a distinct stamp on a tune and make it his own. Problem was (and still is), he’s alive, kicking and writing strong material such as “Blink and You’ll Miss It” and “Cold Moments.” So releasing this as a standalone album is tantamount to jerking us around — even if the material is pretty good.

Why else would you have to revert to your own songs during the album’s chief promotional live appearance? And why do you think the song got THAT reception? Cos you’re GOOD, man. We’ll wait another year if it takes you that to clear the block.

I saw Weller perform in Chicago a year ago and he did a magnificent reading of “Wishing on a Star.” Everyone in the audience sang along and it slid beautifully into his set. Ahem, time and place, ahem. And yeah, if a track from this album comes up randomly on my iPod shuffle, I’ll likely turn it up and go, “Ah, listen to this one.” But for some reason, pulling out a covers album by Paul Weller to sit down and listen to seems dirty. I mean, Stanley Road is right there next to it. And Wild Wood is right next to that.

P.S. Don’t think the irony was lost on any of us that Weller had the balls to release THREE singles off this album (four digitally) and fill those B-sides with more covers still. The cover of “Coconut Grove” is damn good. DAMN good. I just wish it had backed an original track.

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2 comments

  1. I am glad you mentioned “Coconut Grove.” Personally, I felt that was the only cover that was truly given a proper makeover and came out fresher, sharper, and sexier than before. Good indeed.

    Also, didn’t Weller release a cover of “Sexy Sadie”? Or am I making that up?


  2. In hindsight I think Studio 150 was Weller’s second best album of the ’00s, and one of the funnest albums he’s made since um… Wild Wood. He makes the material sound something like his own on most of it. The Bacharach cover sounded like a “Moon on Your Pajamas” or “Sweet Pea” to me, and his version of “The Bottle” had the funk “Bring Back The Funk” did not. Only thing that completely missed me from the sessions was the Sly Stone cover. Woulda loved it if his version of “Gimme Shelter” had come together as he hoped. Ooh… helluva version of “Early Morning Rain” as well.



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