Somehow, it’s been four years since we spoke to ECC Records’ Mark Constantine about its The Self Preservation Society album, in which the Lush boss persuaded a gang of folkies to deliver fresh takes on psych-folk songs of the 1960s and 1970s.
It followed the triple album up with Instant Replay – focused on the 1970s – in 2019. And now, naturally enough, we’re on songs from the 1980s: Life’s What You Make It features contributions from many of the same artists, including Eliza Carthy, Teddy Thompson, Rioghnach Connolly and Barney Morse-Brown.
As before, there’s something fascinating about what happens when people who often present us with reworkings of traditional songs apply their skills to ‘cover versions’. There’s a subtle difference, hard to define, but this third collection continues the trend for intelligent, thoughtful takes.
That’s reflected in the songs chosen. This isn’t a cheesy playlist of 1980s hits – FW (who was born in the middle of the decade) only recognises about half of the tracks.
Afro Celt Sound System’s opener Life in a Northern Town (originally by The Dream Academy) sounds spare, fresh and funky (drummer Johnny Kalsi makes his presence felt). So does Martha Tilston’s lovely version of Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting (main pic and video below). Jackie Oates’ voice has always lent itself to elegant devastation, so The Cure’s Untitled – opening line: “Hopelessly drift in the eyes of the ghost again” – is a perfect match for her. Maybe the originals are good too! Let me know!
Versions of some of the decade’s more famous tracks certainly work. Oates proves equally well suited to the deadpan of Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love. Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight is an ambitious song to take on, but Ben Murray & Richard Evans do it with aplomb, a roughly treated accordion and subdued keys adding menace. If that feels like a challenge, The La’s straightforwardly lovely There She Goes seems hard to make a mess of – and Lockwatchers’ gorgeous arrangement works a treat.
Meanwhile, Teddy Thompson tackles Tina Turner in the right spirit, stripping back What’s Love Got To Do With It without stripping it of its swagger, and Eliza Carthy’s version of Tom Robinson’s Cabin Boy is a well-chosen and brilliantly put-together banger – a description that also fits Sheema Mukherjee’s joyous cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Everywhere. Marry Waterson’s Duel (originally by Propaganda) represents a zesty update, while Fibreglass somehow make Metallica’s Enter Sandman feel older than it is – but in an interesting, pop-tastic way.
In the same way you’re unlikely to enjoy every track from a decade, you probably won’t love everything here. Robert Plant’s Simply Irresistible remains entirely resistible, despite Barney Morse-Brown’s feedback-soaked best efforts (his percussive take on Nirvana’s Come As You Are is better – though, tut tut, it did come out in 1992, one of a handful of nineties tracks sneaked in). And Palm Skin Productions’ version of The Orb’s Little Fluffy Clouds suffers from the decision to re-record the vocal sample.
Versions of tracks by Spandau Ballet, Fun Boy Three and Bananarama don’t do it for FW either, but that might be the source material. Life’s What You Make It is the perfect album to stick on when you have company – the arrangements are invariably original and inventive (check out Stealing Sheep’s almost unrecognisable version of Blister in the Sun), and the tracks are sure to trigger several ‘I’d forgotten about this one!’ moments, as well as great debates about the merits of the originals, as well as the covers. Bring on the 1990s and beyond!
Life’s What You Make It is out now on ECC Records