One of my last acts as a recording artist was a series of demos intended for a covers album. Though I didn’t really realize it at the time, I was deadly bored with myself as a songwriter, and dragging my producer into re-recordings of Supertramp and Marshall Crenshaw songs was a way of staving off the dread of trying to write anything new. It was fun, for awhile, but eventually my producer had to tell me in no uncertain terms that unless you’re going to bring something new to the table, there’s no reason to do a cover — particularly of a well-known song.
It stung, but he was right, and over the past ten years or so, as it’s sidled up alongside “Christmas album,” “greatest hits collection,” and “live album” as a designated pitstop on the way to artistic oblivion, I’ve come to detest the covers project. Most of the time, you’re either going to get something so ridiculous it only has novelty value, or something so slavishly faithful it barely exists, especially if it’s being recorded by someone who’s a songwriter in his or her own right. Recording your favorite songs is an act of pure tribute, but it also poses some hard questions about your own songwriting talent — and to really get inside a song, take it apart, and put it back together in a new way takes a lot of effort, not to mention an uncommon perspective.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying Brandon Schott is a brave motherfucker for trying his hand at new versions of “God Only Knows” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and that he deserves several standing ovations for pulling it off.
Schott’s new digital single, out next week, combines his elastic vocals and love of gently layered production with two of the most indelible songs in pop music history, and the results hit the sweet spot between tribute and reinvention. No one is going to mistake either of these for the originals, but neither song is radically different; he recorded them with a small ensemble including Daniel Mulliken (sitar and cello) and Steven Wilson (tabla), both of whom add a slight Middle Eastern vibe to the baroque array of instruments Schott plays (ukulele, harmonium, chamberlain, glockenspiel, toy piano, various bells). They’re gentle readings of gentle songs — a little softer and slower than the originals, with a more intimate feel, but without sacrificing the intricacy of the arrangements.
Do you need another version of “God Only Knows” or “Strawberry Fields Forever”? Will Schott’s covers replace the originals in your collection? The answer to both questions is probably no, but as a between-albums treat, this single does the trick, and as a primer for listeners who aren’t familiar with Schott’s heartfelt brand of pop, it’s just about perfect — particularly “God Only Knows,” which features a vocal cameo from his seven-year-old son that adds a new layer of meaning to the lyrics. Look for it at iTunes next week, and if you happen to be in the L.A. area on Thursday, don’t miss Schott’s free concert at the Renaissance Hotel in Hollywood.
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