Cover albums are tricky.
Not only must musicians respect the spirit of a song’s original performance, they also have to inject something of their own muse into it.
Good cover albums (Bill Frisell, Have a Little Faith) strike the right balance, while bad ones (Duran Duran, Thank You) end up smearing the reputation of both tributor and tributee.
Nearly a year after giving birth to her son, Shiina Ringo eases her way back into the hyper-productive Japanese music scene with her own cover album, Utaite Myoori. (Or, “Singer’s luck”.)
Shiina has cultivated a reputation for being an in-your-face rocker. She doesn’t fear banging tone clusters on an introspective piano ballad (“Tokiga Boosoosuru”) any more than wailing over a heavy metal guitar riff (“Identity”).
So it’s both surprising and typical for Shiina’s cover album to cut a wide swath of musical styles: Edith Piaf, Andy Williams, the Beatles, Franz Schubert.
Just how well does can one singer interpret Marilyn Monroe and a Japanese lullaby? Pretty well, as it turns out.
Although Utaite Myoori clocks in at 67 minutes, Shiina saw fit to split the album into two discs, one helmed by a different producer and performed by a distinct band.
Each disc is named after the person who arranged it — the “Mori-pact disc” by Mori Toshiyuki, the “Kame-pact disc” by Kameda Seiji.
Shiina was wise to keep the work of these two arrangers separate — like the album covers, they’re as different as night and day.
Fans will probably warm up to the “Kame-pact disc” more easily. Kameda worked with Shiina on her previous albums, and the performances he brings out of the band fits well with what’s gone before.
Compared to the “Mori-pact disc”, however, Kameda and Gyakutai Glycogen (the house band for that disc) deliver the most fiery performances.
Shiina sounds like blues mama on “Shiroi Kohato”, while the guitar work on the Beatles’ “Yer Blues” could be charitably described as wondefully chaotic.
Andy Williams’ “More” transforms into a space-age cabaret song, borrowing a few arrangement tricks from Shiina’s own “Yokoshitsu”. Even the unlikely cover of Monroe’s “I Wanna Be Loved By You” feels organic.
The most relevatory performance is Shiina’s duet with SPITZ’s Kusano Masamune. Kusano, who’s wonderful voice is often backed by jangly guitars, sounds at home in front of Kameda’s screaming axeslingers.
Although the “Mori-pact” disc isn’t bad per se, it doesn’t seem to possess the kind of passion of the “Kame-pact” disc.
Shiina’s duet with Utada Hikaru on “I Won’t Last a Day Without You” feels labored. The cold electronic arrangement of “Jazz a Go Go” seems a bit too stiff for the song’s need to swing.
Shiina does tackle “Kareha” (a.k.a. “Autumn Leaves”) with a very tangible sensuality, and her performance of “Komoriuta” is beautifully sparse.
Taken as a whole, Utaite Myoori is pretty impressive. Shiina navigates multiple languages, styles and idioms with forcefullness and ease. She has no qualms about shaping other people’s music into her own, and she makes it work well.