It's an odd thing when songwriters become cover artists; it stops being about what they're saying and instead becomes an exercise in how they're saying it, which is usually far less interesting an exercise. When a writer becomes an interpreter, and nothing more, it almost feels incidental--as though he or she is just hiding behind someone else's message or playing dead till the muses pay a visit. In short, such albums reek of disposability; they're an homage to killing time. At least, that's the vibe one gets from Mark Eitzel's Music for Courage & Confidence, a collection of 4-year-old covers (recorded with, among others, two Beck band ex-pats) only now seeing release through the Austin-based New West label, which struck a deal with Matador to handle distribution and publicity. Perhaps Matador sniffed out the project for what it was: a smart-alecky goof, an experiment best kept on the shelf.
Moaning through a most eclectic assortment of silly and sublime love songs (from Culture Club to Kris Kristofferson--the musical equivalent of a speed bump taken at 120 mph), Eitzel invests the material with the cynic's knowing smirk. He loves the songs, maybe, but not so much he doesn't finally wring the life from them in an attempt to play sincere and sardonic all at once. At first, it's possible to groove on and giggle at the interpretations, which are so inert they're almost dead; his hoarse, laconic reading of "Snowbird" (made famous by Anne Murray, making this the first Eitzel album you could share with your mama) could be mistaken for parody if it didn't sound like everything else he's ever recorded, either with American Music Club or solo. (Eitzel's maybe the most engaging dullard in the history of alternative rock, at least this side of Dean Wareham or Tindersticks' Stuart Staples.) And the way he sings Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine," you fucking believe it; it's the musical equivalent of a solar eclipse that lasts a whole day. But sooner or later, the proceedings turn funereal and drag-ass; everything, from "I Only Have Eyes for You" to "Move on Up" to "Rehearsals for Retirement," is rendered a dirge, the plaint of the sad-eyed singer who's playing Sinatra at 4 a.m. and winds up parodying Frank Jr. at 4 p.m. instead.
Mary Lou Lord--best known, unfortunately, for a long-ago dalliance with the artist formerly known as Kurt Cobain and her current stint selling Target via her cover of Daniel Johnston's "Speeding Motorcycle"--fares far better with her own collection of other people's music, perhaps because rather than stick with a theme (love songs, ugh) and grind it to dust, she celebrates heroes and influences and standards and standbys. Music made out of love is far more engaging than music about that tired old subject. Where Eitzel's disc sounds like static after a bit, Lord's is a buzz. Recorded in the fall of 2000 in a Boston subway station and at Harvard Square, where Lord often picks up spare change and sells a few discs, City Sounds is a loose, giddy affair; between songs you can hear her thanking applauding passers-by (perhaps at this point in her career, having been dropped by Sony, Lord's just happy anyone will pay attention to her) and taking requests for Billy Bragg songs. The effect is utterly and instantly endearing: She's not trying at all.
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Unlike Eitzel, who peddles irony like a corny dog vendor during the last day of the State Fair, Lord's all sincerity; she plays it all straight, even refusing to gender-bend the Green Pajamas' beguiling "She's Still Bewitching Me" or Bevis Fronder Nick Saloman's "She Had You" (which appeared on Lord's sole major-label release). Occasionally, her voice bends, as when she channels Sandy Denny's "By the Time it Gets Dark"; sometimes, it even breaks, as when she hops on Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." But there's something kinda magical about a woman, a guitar and a train station singing the hell out of Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go"--and never mind that Shawn Colvin, who Lord sounds just like, got there first on her own album of covers in 1994. And, yeah, "Speeding Motorcycle" is here, too. But just try to find this album at Target.