Earlier this year I posted a Jay Brannan song ("Can't Have It All"), not knowing that he was due to release a new album this year. Well, kind of new. The album, entitled In Living Cover, is composed almost entirely of folk and pop cover songs. There are two originals by Mr. Brannan: the sad and gorgeous (and heartening with the lines "She'll feel the burn, and make the choice to put the fire in her voice..." among others) "Beautifully" is a gem that makes me wish and wish for a full album of originals, while "Drowning" is lush and deep, cushioned by chilling waves of piano that send shudders down my spine as I listen.
What about the covers? Here is a break down, song by song:
"Say It's Possible" (originally performed by Terra Naomi) is a soft and sweet cover. The words "Armageddon Lullaby" come to mind as I listen, and I find Jay's voice so soothing and also so sad. Terra Naomi's original has a good dose of Natalie Imbruglia-style anger and frustration, but Jay Brannan's is vulnerable and weary. (Side note: I am listening to this song on a particularly dark and dreary day, and I would not recommend this setting for In Living Cover to most people. Wait for the warm sun and an aura of earned laziness, or maybe even restlessness, so you can appreciate the sound fully, without contemplating morbidly.)
"All I Want" (originally performed by Joni Mitchell) is grounded by Jay Brannan's voice, or maybe not quite grounded, but channeled and floated along a streamlined path to your ears. Joni's voice is flighty and capricious on almost all of her songs, and her guitar work follows, bouncing along behind her melodic twanging whisper-wails. Brannan, thankfully, does not attempt to cover in the same spirit, but brings his on strengths to the table to lend the song a steady form and pace. It all sounds wonderfully heartfelt and romantic, and puts me in the mood to listen to both songs.
"Blowin' In The Wind" (originally performed by Bob Dylan) is a very different animal, and although I appreciated the strengths of the Jay Brannan cover (not the least of which is a vocal delivery that enables the listener to hear and understand all of the beautiful lyrics without trouble), I do miss the growl and harmonica of the original. It is very difficult to cover Dylan, and Brannan succeeds in many ways, but in the end his form and delivery are almost too pristine for this song. The ugliness is missing, and the imperfections that give the song body, but it is still beautiful and heartfelt. Crisp, clean, and clear.
"The Freshmen" (originally performed by The Verve Pipe) is one of those remembered songs from childhood radio-listening; the kind that I sang along to (as well as I could without really knowing the words) but never understood, and then never really heard again, except maybe in passing on a radio station that plays hits from the last three decades. It is strange to hear a cover, because the song is both old and new to me, and brings together that person/version of myself who loved Polly Pocket and that person/version of myself who knows about the movie Shortbus, and understands at least most of the references. It's a big leap! The cover is very similar to the original, although Brannan makes the piano the most important musical voice in the song, and so the pop-rock aspect is lost with the electric guitars. Still a little muddled by the song (I am the kind of person who can fail to understand something for years until I read about it) I looked up the lyrics, and well, it is a sad sad song. I don't think I ever really want to listen to this song again, but if I did, I would definitely pick the Jay Brannan version. His forté is making sad things beautiful.
"Good Mother" (originally performed by Jann Arden) moves far from the early 1990s sound that so epitomizes the original (you know, that short time when artists attempted to use synthesizers tastefully after the excesses of the 1980s, only to learn that the very nature of a synthesizer makes it difficult to use tastefully, it is meant to be so obvious and futuristic-sounding). Luckily, Jay Brannan understands this reality, and synthesizers are not to be heard in his cover, while the vocals highs and lows that made the original worth listening to, are tastefully brought to life by Brannan.
"Both Hands" (originally performed by Ani Difranco) surprises me, because it is the only song on the album that breaks the Brannan mold and still succeeds in sounding delightful different from the original. I have to admit that I am not a big Ani Difranco fan, and I did not particularly enjoy this song before hearing the cover. Jay Brannan uses the dramatic layered affect of a kind of a cappella instrumentation, where the vocals that are laid over each other create a hum that guides the whole song. This cover reminds me of the best work of Imogen Heap ("Hide and Seek," etc.), with fewer synthesizer affects, and the power of the human voice to lend weight to Difranco's beautiful lyrics.
"Zombie" (originally performed by The Cranberries) is a song by one of my favorite bands, but it took no convincing for me to fall in love with this cover. In the original, the rock orchestra pummels you as you listen to Dolores O'Riordan's controlled and ethereal voice laying out the foundation for a story of the strife in Ireland. Jay Brannan deletes the orchestral aspect, retaining only a few strings that can sketch out the aftermath of the epic original. His voice, however, retains the intensity of the original, and carries some of the deep regrets of war of all kinds that made the original song so powerful.
That makes an album, an album that you can hear in its entirety through YouTube (via Jay Brannan), and that you can see performed across the United States, and in parts of Europe through this summer and into the fall. I'll be listening.