Now, Michael has no way of knowing my disdain for most cover records. With relatively few exceptions, when an artist who typically traffics in original material spends 45 to (God help us) 80 minutes playing other artists’ songs, there is something afoot, something not very pleasant. Usually, there is some sort of creative atrophy that settles into the organs and muscles that makes it plausible for, say, Peter Gabriel (who released a stinker of a cover record this very year) to set aside his songwriting to ostensibly pay homage to others. Bereft of original ideas, the artist reaches out to existing material, to perhaps find a spark that will re-ignite whatever flame that has gone out, or at least give him/her product to toss out into the marketplace, to distract listeners until the flame spontaneously flickers on again.
Granted, they’re not all like that, and sometimes my reticence to embrace such projects is unwarranted. I recall groaning at the news that Springsteen was recording a record of songs made famous by Pete Seeger, but The Seeger Sessions turned out to be a joyful exercise in music-making, one that translated just as well on the live stage as it did on record. I also initially thought Annie Lennox was in trouble in 1995, releasing a cover album as her second solo release, but Medusa‘s mix of well-known songs (“Train in Vain,” “Take Me to the River,” “Whiter Shade of Pale”) and relative obscurities (“No More I Love You’s,” Paul Simon’s “Something So Right,” and her exquisite take on the Blue Nile’s “The Downtown Lights”) made for an interesting and entertaining listen.
There are others I enjoy: Cat Power has put out two excellent cover records; David Bowie’s Pin-Ups is worth finding; Metallica’s Garage, Inc. is pretty amazing; Bob Dylan’s World Gone Wrong is revelatory; Colin Meloy’s series of cover EPs (of Sam Cooke, Shirley Collins, and Morrissey) are little nuggets of goodness; Shawn Colvin’s Cover Girl is a lovely collection; the Persuasions, in one year, released cover albums of Frank Zappa and Grateful Dead songs—both were wonderful. There are some I’m sure I’m forgetting; remind me of them in the comments.
For every cover record that succeeds at a high level of artistry, there are many that fail miserably: Def Leppard’s Yeah!; Tori Amos’ Strange Little Girls; Great White’s Great Zeppelin; Poison’s Poison’d; Rush’s Feedback; Scarlett Johanson’s Tom Waits record; Camper van Beethoven’s rehash of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk; everything Rod Stewart has recorded in the last five or six years; and don’t get me started on the string quartet “tributes” to Metallica, Pink Floyd, and the like. I could go on.
L.A. Guns have already released one cover album—2004’s Rips Off the Covers, which featured the band playing Queen, Zeppelin, and Foghat tunes like a mediocre cover band at your local watering hole. The trend continues with Covered in Guns, in which this sorta reconstituted hair/glam metal juggernaut sets its sites on Def Leppard, AC/DC, Joan Jett and other unassuming rock stars, hoping that a little milk from the teet of actual inspired songwriters might nourish them until they can start playing arenas again.
I’d love to just blast this thing, but truth be told, there’s nothing here that’s really bad, nor anything that’s really good. It just is—the record floats on a relatively smelly cloud of mediocrity, but never drops anything really putrid on the listener. I suppose one can blame singer Phil Lewis for not nailing the timing or nuances of a Joe Elliott or Bon Scott or Myles Goodwyn (the cover of April Wine’s “Just Between You and Me” is decent, in a Tesla-kinda way). But does anyone really expect anything from Phil Lewis? Seriously, if he gets through the song without running out of breath, burping, or forgetting the lyrics, it’s pretty much a break-even scenario.
He is, however, the least of the talents on the album; as the rest of the group cranks out pretty much note-for-note renditions of the songs. This makes something like KISS’ “Rock & Roll All Night” sound pretty passable, cuz the original sounded pretty bad. The band suffers its way through “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” because there probably wasn’t sufficient budget to mimic a Mutt Lange production, so the whole thing sounds like a single channel being stretched into a stereo recording. I was initially concerned to see Matthew Wilder‘s “Break My Stride” on the track list, but what the hell—it’s not horrible. It’s not good, either, but I suppose it’s all about timing. Had they tried to pull this off in ’88, they’da gotten their asses kicked, just on principle.
Not sure why a sleazy glam band would want to try to out-sleaze Buckcherry, but giving “Crazy Bitch” the L.A. Guns treatment kinda negates the sleaze at some level—probably because Lewis is no Josh Todd—which just makes the song annoying. We also have a boring “Don’t Fear the Reaper” with no cowbell, and a fresh take on a song off the most recent Alice in Chains record (“Check My Brain”) which is notable because it features Lewis imitating William DuVall, imitating Layne Staley.
The only song on Covered in Guns that is truly unforgivable is the last one, a blast through the Beach Boys’ Christmas staple “Little Saint Nick.” I loathe the original, an unlistenable exercise in singing through one’s nose—fuck Mike Love—that is neither exciting nor fun, something nearly every Beach Boys record from the era could claim. The cover is even worse, not because it’s a bad version of a bad song, but because it’s a bad version of a bad song that will be played on rock radio ad nauseum for about six weeks every year for the rest of my life. Cynical bastards, those L.A. Guns dudes, but they’re certain to get airplay out of it.
I’d say thanks to Michael Parr for sending this one my way, but my fingers just can’t quite type out the words. Looking forward to my next adventure in required listening, I see a certain spiral-curl hairdo in my future. As long as I don’t hear a bleating saxophone or faceless pop-jazz behind it, I should be oka—oh, shit.
Keep those emails comin’. Please.