After seven albums of original material – and his excellent, most recent release, Coney Island Wave (chronicled here yesterday), literate rocker Mike Rimbaud decided to do an album of covers. Which can be tricky. In order to cover a song that’s worth covering to begin with, you either have to do it better than the original – no easy task – or completely reinvent it. Which is exactly what Rimbaud did with Can’t Judge a Song By Its Cover. To call this record ambitious is something of an understatement: tackling mostly well-known, iconic songs, Rimbaud makes it seem easy as he nails them, one by one. If you’re willing to buy the argument that there’s such thing as a classic album of covers, this is it.
It gets off to a false start. The opening track, Almost Hear You Sigh, has a tired, 70s blues-pop feel. Who might have been responsible for it the first time around? Dire Straits, maybe? As it turns out, this is a Rolling Stones song, from long after that band ceased to be relevant. Then the fun begins with an electric bluegrass version of Springsteen’s Atlantic City – Rimbaud’s casual, practically blithe delivery only underscores the grim fatalism in the hitman’s tale. The album’s centerpiece is Idiot Wind, which has arguably the greatest rock lyric ever written, as much of a requiem for the optimism of the 60s as for Dylan’s marriage. Rimbaud reinvents it by turning it into straight-up electric rock and playing it almost doublespeed (the original clocks in at around nine minutes, this one at five). Once again, the nuance in Rimbaud’s vocals, from icy rage to a contemptuous rasp, is intuitive, and packs a wallop: it’s not quite as intense as the venomous Mary Lee’s Corvette version, but it’s pretty close, and the band (Chris Fletcher on bass and Kevin Tooley on drums along with Rimbaud’s guitars and keys) keeps up with him.
The rest of the album is more carefree. Marley’s Is This Love gets new life via a brisk new wave/powerpop arrangement in the same vein as Blondie’s One Way or Another, with a killer Link Wray-flavored surf rock solo. Mike’s Wave is the Tom Jobim bossa nova hit done with just enough bite to elevate it above lounge music, while the Beatles’ No Reply gets a Stonesy, noir garage rock groove. The original version of Phil Ochs’ Ringing of Revolution has brilliant lyrics but a pretty generic early 60s folkie melody: Rimbaud rescues it by plugging it in and giving it a bluesy menace fueled by ominous chromatic harp, raising the intensity, the fat cats squirming in their easy chairs as the murderous mob grows closer and closer. Which makes the payoff at the end all the more satisfying, where the citizens’ “memories [are] dimmed of the decades of execution.” It’s timeless: Ochs could have been referring to the Soviet Union under Stalin, or Texas under Bush. The last song on the album is titled Take 5000: it’s an update on the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s classic Take 5, the bestselling jazz single of all time. Rimbaud makes tango nuevo out of it, blending electric piano and wah guitar for a fun, eerie ride capped off with another excellent surf guitar solo. Along with Rimbaud’s most recent album of originals, this deserves to be counted as one of the best rock records of recent months.
Rimbaud’s also featured on the upcoming Occupy This Album benefit record for the Occupy movement along with socially aware artists from Jackson Browne, to Immortal Technique, to New York art-rockers My Pet Dragon and roots reggae star Taj Weekes & Adowa.
And there’s more: Rimbaud also has a pretty hilarious new single out, a cover of the Beatles’ Baby You’re a Rich Man done with a tongue-in-cheek, reverb-drenched Exile on Main Street glimmer.