By BRUCE DENNILL
Bryan Adams: Tracks Of My Years 7
The Motherland: This Is Our Home 6
David Gray: Mutineers 6.5
Mark Counihan: To The Brave Ones 7
For a writer as skilled and prolific as Bryan Adams, recording an album of covers (bar one song, She Knows Me) seems like a bit of a redundant conceit, but as he explains in his sleeve notes, he was convinced to do so because a) David Foster asked him to, and b) he was, and remains, a huge fan of great music, including that which was popular around the time he kicked off his long and storied career. Adams’ unmistakable vocals kick in immediately you press “play”, giving Any Time At All the same energy injected by Lennon’s original take, and then match the suave swing of Don Gibson’s I Can’t Stop Loving You just as effortlessly. Other than, occasionally, in his phrasing, Dylan doesn’t set too many standards as a vocalist, so Adam’s take on Lay Lady Lay (an octave up from the original) impresses, even if the arrangement otherwise plays it pretty safe. Rock singing is Adams’ forte, and Chuck Berry’s Rock And Roll Music sounds tailor-made for his raspy tenor, with a band that includes Gary Breit on piano and Abe Laboriel Jr on drums sounding like they’re having a fantastic time behind him. In vocal tone terms, pairing Adams with anything by John Fogerty makes perfect sense, and the former’s sprightly take on Creedence’s Down On The Corner could – and should – be in Adams’ live set. Don and Dick Addrisi’s Never My Love is an equally good fit, its arrangement kept simple – largely because the song needs no distracting accessories. The same can be said of Sunny, usually a more louche, smokey tune, reinvented here as a four-four pop tune. The album closes with another couple of peerless examples of their respective types of music – The Tracks Of My Tears, played mostly straight with just the added gravel of Adams’ voice relative to Smokey Robinson’s, and God Only Knows stripped of the huge dreamscape layers put in place by Brian Wilson and made into a late-night musing driven by delicate piono and a considered, sensitive vocal by Adams. Tracks Of My Years is no vanity project, being rather a sincere tribute to brilliant musicians by another of their number.
Johannesburg folk-pop act The Motherland share with compatriots The Black Hotels an ability to weave between major and minor keys in their delivery, giving their songs an agreeable texture and complexity while still keeping them accessible. Lies kicks off the collection with an ostensibly negative theme, communicated with passion by singer Sean Hayes Abood, before All My Life offers chart-friendly pop for the thinking listener. Forest’s contrabass and brushes rhythm segues into an indie arrangement rather than the sort of jazz that utilises the same elements. Down The River and I’m A Man drop the pace somewhat, offering a more subdued mood and fewer hooks before closer Fire includes the more percussive guitar rhythms and clipped vocal phrasing of Jeremy Loops or similar, rounding out This Is Our Home, the band’s debut EP, in a party mood.
It’s probably unfair to impose on David Gray a pile of emotional baggage he may not have even thought about carrying, but the ubiquity of Babylon must have been a burden of some sort to a solo songwriter whose future would forever be judged against that tune. It’s long been easy to imagine that issue as a shadow over Gray’s career, but Back In The World, the first song on Mutineers, tells of a man happy with his lot after a time out of life’s sweet spot – it’s a love song paying tribute to the influence of love – and matches that happiness with a celebratory refrain that positions Gray as a one-man Coldplay. This ecstasy is immediately tempered by the following song, As The Crow Flies, which has a clever lyric that blurs the line between highs and lows (“A part of me pre, a part of me post; a part of me present, a part of me ghost”), but still, Gray sounds more chipper – and more free, in terms of his expression – than he has in a while. The bulk of this collection comprises ruminations about relationships – Gray often addresses a partner (simply referred to as “Baby”) in his lyrics – and the range of ideas Gray brings to such a well-worn theme is impressive. In Beautiful Agony, he speaks of love “vandalising” him, causing “beautiful agony”, while in Last Summer he takes the cliché of looking into a lover’s eyes and places himself in those eyes, “living every hour like a century”. Snow In Vegas includes the delightfully prosaic observation “We’re vain, yeah, and we’re greedy, we’re selfish and we’re needy” at the end of a song that otherwise might have suggested an upward narrative arc. Cake And Eat It is driven by a lovely acoustic guitar lick, repeated, as are many of the lyrics, in a criss-crossing, layered mash-up of complementary sounds and phrases, before The Incredible introduces rudiments of the folk music that is one of the foundations of Gray’s sound. The same can be said of closer Gulls, though that song is rinsed in an electronic wash. Ultimately, Gray again frustrates efforts to place him in a particular niche with a gratifyingly eclectic album with no leap-out-and-grab-you hits but plenty that will yield repeated rewards as you continue to listen.
There are many ways to do the solo singer-songwriter thing, and Johannesburg’s Mark Counihan eschews the more basic options, coupling his clear, relatively high voice with adroit picked acoustic guitar licks on Brave Ones and the brilliant Call To Live, which is persuasive without ever being confrontational, before bringing in other ideas. The Light mixes touches of Sufjan Stevens with harmonies that suggest the influence of both gospel music and South African folk-rockers like Bright Blue. Man On The Run then continues to investigate the theme of coverage touched on in the opening track before Miles To Go plays with keyboards and two-step drum rhythms to enjoyably vary its dynamic impact. Streets simplifies everything, going back to just Counihan and his guitar and allowing space for beautifully expressed adoration – Counihan’s day job is as a worship pastor – and perhaps the most heartfelt, pure vocal performance on the album. The six-minute running time of One God Who Saves suggests that the song will be a slow builder, and so it proves, surging until around five minutes and then backing off to allow for the reflection its lyrics inspire. Encore is as anthemic as its title suggests, including a choir to build energy in the second half, before Cover Up, to begin with, quietens things down dramatically, though it does allow Counihan to push his vocals to the higher end of his range later in the song. Counihan has a knack for finding just left-of-centre ways of approaching popular (sometimes overworked) subject matter and giving it a fresh, polished sheen. At nine tracks, this collection feels a couple of tracks too short.