Temporarily in possession of a car last Tuesday, and without much to do, I drove myself to Minneapolis' Cheapo Records. There's a Cheapo four blocks from my apartment in St. Paul, but the Minneapolis branch is bigger, cooler, and, crucially, has a basement "Viynltopia." I blew an afternoon and a few dollars there, here's what I found:
•Isaac Hayes, The Isaac Hayes Movement--Ike's at the height of his powers on this album of four lengthy covers. As a songwriter, he's part proto-hop-hip visionary, part master arranger and interpreter. He picks apart his source material, shuffling around and recombining an original's lyrics, melodies, and rhythms with his own words and arrangements. He often sees enough in a song to stretch it to three or four times its original running length. Accordingly, the bittersweet album opener "I Stand Accused" gains a five-minute spoken word intro in which Ike, speaking to his best friend's fiancee, says everything but what he really means--that he's in love with her. As the song transitions from the intro to the bulk of the tune, the sparse drums, piano, and guitar gradually gain strings, horns, and a gospel choir in a build that would make Jason Pierce jealous. Jerry Butler's lyrics, as sung by Hayes, are an affecting and desperate plea for love, all the more potent for following the Hayes-penned monologue.
The rest of the album is hardly a let-down. Side one's other track, "One Big Unhappy Family," can't quite compete with the twelve-minute "Accused," but Hayes' baritone sounds wounded there as well, and carries the song. As an interpretive vocalist, his only true contemporary was Rod Stewart (who the same year would release his great, mostly-covers album Gasoline Alley). Side two begins with the Bacharach/David tune "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself." I hear it as the lament of "I Stand Accused"'s protagonist, after he wins and then loses the girl. The song's been drastically reconfigured, at least in comparison to the (also excellent) White Stripes cover I know, with an oddly lovely passage that features the gospel choir singing "Don't know what to do" in progressively higher registers.
The album closes with a 11:45 cover of The Beatles' "Something." While the guitar sounds eerily like George Harrison's, the song's sufficiently different to discourage comparison: let's just say they're both gorgeous. John Blair's contributions on violin nearly steal the song. 5/5
•Low, "Santa's Coming Over b/w The Coming Of Jah"--Low's eerie UK-only Christmas single from last year. The packaging's cool--you can barely make out Low's name on the all-white cover--and the song's a grower. Creepy, quiet verses erupt into loud, nervous choruses. Deeply unsettling, even for Low. The b-side, a cover, is an attempt to merge Low's sound with reggae, a genre Alan's been name-checking for a while. It doesn't quite succeed, and that Al and Mimi invited their grade-school children to sing on the track doesn't help. 4/5
•R.E.M., "Radio Song b/w Love Is All Around"--The song's got it's haters, but I've always enjoyed the upbeat, KRS-One-featuring "Radio Song." I bought this for the b-side, however, and I dig it. Mike Mills' vocals and Peter Buck's guitar render this delicate song even more fragile. Not as good as The Troggs version, still cool. 4/5
•Charlotte Hatherley, "Summer b/w Commodore, S.M.U.T."--Hatherley's "White" is one of the best songs of 2009, and I enjoyed what I heard of 2007's The Deep Blue. "Summer" is culled from her first solo album. Power-pop sadly bereft of the fluid guitar work she's capable of, the A-side is enjoyable enough. The two b-sides are forgettable. 3/5
•David Vandervelde, "Jacket b/w Murder in Michigan"--Vandervelde has a serious Marc Bolan fixation, but since when was that a crime? I bought this because it was cheap and had loved another T. Rex-biting tune of Vandervelde's, the towering, youthful "Nothin' No." "Jacket" works the same angle, to awesome, glam-tastic effect. The b-side is more "Ride A White Swan" than "Jeepster", and less fun. 4/5