Mark Lanegan finds his place among legends on 'Imitations'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
I’ve thought about Elvis a lot lately. Not necessarily the rise to fame and the imitators and the lip curl and all the other tropes and cliches that accompany any sort of mental picture that the name “Elvis Presley” immediately paints, but Elvis, the music, the singer.
Zeroing in on his post-Comeback Special era, the period in the late 1960s and early ’70s after he found his voice again and before drugs and excess swallowed him whole, I like to think about Elvis at work in the studio. This was a period where he sang everything he wanted to sing. If he was excited about a song, or if he heard something in a songwriter, he brought that tune to the studio, and with some seasoned pros, he knocked them out in bunches, leaving the album to be assembled by producers later on. As long as the songs came out, that was his primary concern. It’s also how Frank Sinatra worked when he was at his best. It’s how the best voices worked back then.
All those thoughts came back to me as I listened to Imitations, the latest by Mark Lanegan and his second full album of covers. As with 1999’s I’ll Take Care of You, Lanegan leans classic, reaching back not just 30 years but to an era of post-World War II standards, lending his smokey call to some of the more famous bits in the American songbook along with the idiosyncratic.
His version of the Memphis studio veterans is a little different, of course. For much of the record, old Screaming Trees bandmate Barrett Martin joins in on drums, Duff McKagen is on bass for a few songs and he’s joined on guitars by Mike Johnson and Jeff Fielder. Some songs, like John Cale’s “I’m Not the Loving Kind” get a full-blown arrangement treatment, with strings, piano and backing vocals creating a bed that would’ve felt right in time in the Tin Pan Alley era. Others, like his version of “Mack the Knife,” are stripped down to just his voice and an acoustic guitar, putting his upbeat vocal delivery in stark contrast to its surroundings.
Where, 40 years ago, this album would’ve been put together with an eye for hits, today it’s simply an exercise in art for Lanegan, and with that comes the freedom to sing anything he wants, how he wants to do it. How else to explain how he can commit to French artist Gérard Manset’s “Elégie Funèbre,” with all the soul and vigor of a man who had been singing in this language for years? He heard a tune, and he wanted to bring his voice to it.
And in that regard, he saves his biggest punch for last, taking a song Sinatra made famous, “Autumn Leaves,” keeping all of the power that the Chairman brought to one of his most famous songs and fearlessly breathing new life into it with his unmistakable baritone. Lanegan has long had unmatched strength in his voice, but hearing how confidently and proudly he sings this song was nearly shocking. It was beautiful.
This is a song that Edith Piaf and Nat King Cole made their own as well, and now here’s Lanegan, putting his own stamp on the tune. The ability to take one of the more recognizable songs of the 20th century, turn it on its head and maintain its spirit is a feat that few could pull off. It’s not something that happens much anymore. But here he is, singing old songs and adding them to his cannon.
I love the idea of Lanegan working within the same realm as Elvis and Sinatra, yet miles away from that edge of the musical universe and operating under an entirely different set of rules and expectations, singing songs that make him excited and bringing everything he has in the studio. It’s how it used to be done, and on Imitations, it’s how it’s being done again.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org