She Loves You – Star-Ledger

Sunday, August 22, 2004
BY BRADLEY BAMBARGER
New Jersey Star-Ledger Staff

Unlike jazz or classical, pop music lacks a broadly inspired art of interpretation. When a rock singer sings another artist’s song, it usually seems like rote karaoke or a cynical play to audience nostalgia, or both.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. David Bowie and Elvis Costello have always covered classics and contemporaries, paying homage by investing the songs with their own imagination. Country-rocker Dwight Yoakam not only tips his hat to other artists as a matter of course but inhabits their music to an almost defiantly definitive degree.

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Another in the exclusive set of rock artists with exceptional taste and interpretive vision is Greg Dulli, former leader of the sadly defunct Afghan Whigs. Live, that Ohio band would veer from its own dramatically literate, slide-guitar-stoked hard rock to string together counterintuitive complements from the Stones to Isaac Hayes to TLC’s “Creep.”

Although covers spiced the Whigs’ B-side and soundtrack efforts, the band’s 1992 Sub Pop EP “Uptown Avondale” provided an extended showcase for Dulli’s retooling of soul classics. Motown habitually set downbeat lyrics to upbeat grooves; indicative of his art, Dulli recast “Come See About Me” into a dark minor key to match the desperately plaintive lyrics.

Now working with a rotating crew as the Twilight Singers, Dulli has revisited reinterpretations for “She Loves You,” his third post-Whigs album. Casting a wide net, he re-envisions music by or associated with George Gershwin, Skip James, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Fleetwood Mac, Hope Sandoval, Mary J. Blige, Bjork and U.K. trip-hop chanteuse Martina Topley-Bird.

Dulli’s version of “Too Tough to Die” — a wonderfully idiosyncratic call to arms from Topley-Bird’s debut solo album, “Quixotic” — has to make do without the original’s wide-screen David Holmes production, as well as the British singer’s sheer vocal charm. Yet Dulli’s more organic instrumentation (throbbing bass, rolling drums, howling guitars) and the subtly graded hoarseness of his voice have their own rewards, as he re-examines the song along class, rather than ethnic, lines.

Similarly, Dulli underlines the graphic, even Gothic, lyrical imagery of the civil-rights poem “Strange Fruit” by trading Holiday’s torch-song soundtrack for the metallic tension of the Beatles’ “She’s So Heavy.” In another inspired juxtaposition, Dulli recites the prayer-like invocation from Coltrane’s jazz suite “A Love Supreme” as a folk-soul prelude to his deeply felt voicing of Gaye’s romantic plea “Please Stay (Once You Go Away).”

In such mid-’90s cinematic-rock masterpieces as the Whigs’ album “Gentlemen,” Dulli wrote about sexual politics from an unflinchingly masculine point of view. The role-playing of “She Loves You” allows him to explore his feminine side. Even with Bjork’s operatic eccentricities, her “Hyperballad” was an affecting domestic/neurotic cry for help. Yet Dulli’s earthier rendition adds new resonance, as he marshals the anxiety with squalling background guitars, tolling percussion and a massed vocal response to Bjork’s emotionally unguarded chorus.

The most straightforward cover is Dulli’s kindred-spirit duet with Mark Lanegan on the Depression-era rural blues of Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor.” Dulli’s tenor keens on top as Lanegan’s whiskey-and-cigarette-tarred baritone prowls the bottom. Another American classic, the folk traditional “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” is given grander treatment; the expressive stakes escalate like a compulsive, double-or-nothing bet, building inexorably to a devastated conclusion.

As the album’s finale, Gershwin’s “Summertime” becomes not simply a hymn of hoping against hope but an evocation of dancing on the future’s tightrope. Rather than a paean to the sunny side, Dulli’s version is a siren song, characteristically pointing toward the dark end of the street.

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