Friday, October 5, 2007

Shawn Colvin, Cover Girl:
From Tom Waits to the Talking Heads (and then some)




The profitability of cover albums may be indirect for artists, but as a way to raise awareness, it's a masterstroke. Way back when genres meant something, the internet hadn't changed our music distribution models, and the Adult Alternative label hadn't subsumed well-produced folk music, recording a cover album was a sneaky strategy for folk musicians to broaden the listener base and please the fans all at once.

Shawn Colvin's 1989 debut Steady On garnered her a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and deservedly so: the combination of Colvin's polished, slightly southern-twanged voice and co-writer and producer John Leventhal's lush sound made for seminal work of modern folk, irresistible to those of us looking for the next Suzanne Vega. But Colvin's sophomore Fat City was less well received -- as with so many musicians who spend decades honing that first pressing, the gems were fewer for the second go-round. How to broaden and recover that fresh-faced folk appeal?

Enter Cover Girl, a 1994 album which primarily took covers from Colvin's live recordings (a staple of the on-the-road folksinger) and added a few in-studio layers of bass and atmospheric noise. The end product required little studio time or rehearsal for Colvin; the strategy allowed her to remain in the public eye while she worked up her next album of original material, and it paid off in music and reputation, if not in actual sales.

Though one or two Cover Girl tracks suffer from overproduction -- including, sadly, her cover of The Police's Every Little Thing (He) Does Is Magic -- the hit-to-miss ratio here is high. Colvin's simple guitar and little-girl voice breathe new life into a wide swath of material, from bluesman Chris Smither's Killing the Blues to Band b-side Twilight. Here, we hear her bring backroads innocence to one of two Tom Waits cuts, and her wistful, melodic take on a Talking Heads synthpop classic:

  • Shawn Colvin, This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) (orig. Talking Heads)
  • Shawn Colvin, Looking For The Heart of Saturday Night (orig. Tom Waits)

Colvin appears not to sell her CDs direct from her website, so instead of directing you to buy today's featured album via the artist, I'll note that you can, and should, get Cover Girl for $7.69 at CDUniverse.


Today's bonus covertracks:

  • Colvin covers Simon and Garfunkel's The Only Living Boy in New York (live)
  • folkcombo Salamander Crossing try Colvin's Shotgun Down The Avalanche
  • Alison Krauss makes funky, fast bluegrass of Colvin's I Don't Know Why

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