This post has a back story. And a reason for me to come out of the hiatus once again. I was quite surprisingly contacted by 24 Hour Service Station, a Florida-based record label that released a double-disc New Order Tribute Album earlier this year. They were looking for a decent cover of The Smiths’ Hand in Glove by an indie band for an upcoming Smiths tribute album. I would say I have a fair collection of covers by one of my favourite bands of all time (estimated at around 400), but it seems nearly no one covers Morrissey and Marr’s frenetic masterclass in metaphorical defiance of the Good People. The only version that immediately sprung to mind was of course Sandie Shaw’s, but not only was she not an indie band, her version wasn’t all that good. And then there was This Charming Band, which is essentially straightforward tribute band material, and there was a harmonica-inflected, dragging version from Christian Kjellvander and Lise Westsynthius. And another from someone named Gerard, whose version nearly gives me a panic attack. There was also that live version that Saint Etienne did, but that wouldn’t work either.
However, now I wanted to be helpful, and I was quite drawn to the challenge of finding a decent version of Hand in Glove. I found a couple of other very indie bands that had performed it live, but didn’t appear to have a proper recorded version. And they also weren’t terribly good. Just as I was about to despair and admit defeat, I realized that I actually knew a few indie bands, and perhaps one of them might miraculously have a version of Hand in Glove. It was a long shot. But the lovely Vanilla Swingers answered the call.
Though they didn’t have a version on-hand, Miles and Anne figured they could put one together and record it as quickly as possible, leading to a one-day recording session and a lackadaisical, understated gem of a cover version. Though they took the similar duet route as Kjellvander and Westsynthius, theirs was much more melodic and retained an aloof, knowing attitude without boring a massive hole of ennui through your head. And so it came to pass that one of my most-loved bands of the past few years supplied the title track of this upcoming tribute album for another of my favourite bands.
This tribute’s tracklisting runs thusly:
Hand in Glove – Vanilla Swingers
Paint a Vulgar Picture – True Tone
What Difference Does It Make? – Vampire Slayers
The Boy With the Thorn in His Side – Home
Frankly Mr. Shankly – Questionface
Last Night I Dreamt That Someone Loved Me – Pulse
Death of a Disco Dancer – Loomer
This Night Has Opened My Eyes – Underwater
Handsome Devil – I Buried Paul
Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others – Skinnys 21
There is a Light That Never Goes Out – Edison Shine
Girlfriend in a Coma – Thee Chinadoll
Reel Around the Fountain – Q-Burns Abstract Message
I Know It’s Over – Rosewater Elizabeth
I’ll be honest – I hadn’t heard of most of these bands (except for Vanilla Swingers) outside of the context of Smiths covers. Since this was a reissue of sorts, many of these tracks had been previously released (the only one I don’t remember hearing before is from Skinnys 21). And in listening to this album, I was struck by what I would call the impossibility of the Smiths cover. Cover versions are a tricky business at the best of times, but I’m usually most underwhelmed by the scores of recapitulated pleas for getting what you want and too many lights never going out, spluttering away in mediocrity. Sometimes it’s best if the light goes out – come, come nuclear bomb. Rather than bore me with one of my most cherished songs. On the other equally as maimed, glove-bereft hand, the artists try so hard to blaze a new, albeit often misguided, path that they bury or shred the essence of what Smiths songs are: a perfect balance of incisive wit and brilliant guitar melodies.
Is there something inherently difficult in producing a reputable cover version of a Smiths song? Or is it because we Smiths fans tend to be on the foamier side of rabid about the band? Out of all the Smiths covers I have, I like less than ten. And I would say the majority of them part neatly on the side of twee and subtle, coming from mellow artists like Trash Can Sinatras, Stars, and Tom Rosenthal. An exception to that would be the spikier interpretation of Panic from Carter USM. My issue with Smiths covers seems just as difficult to articulate as the covers themselves.
Does this mean that drastic experimentation dilutes what I love about Morrissey, Marr, Rourke and Joyce, namely the apex of jangly guitar rock for outsiders with that ever-present Mancunian drizzle, first numbing my social ineptitude and then comfortably warming me with a renewing fortitude to face another day? Perhaps I really am just too close to The Smiths, and as an entity essential to my flawed personality, they just can’t be effectively improved upon in my ears. Maybe it’s the fact that their mythology along with that of fellow Mancunians, Joy Division, is the closest I get to believing in the incredulous. They’re simply too transcendent.
The tracks I tended to favour on this collection weren’t far from the original feel of The Smiths’ creations. Vampire Slayers’ loose, shambolic cover with some jazzy trumpet is a fun romp; the haunting, tremulous version of I Know It’s Over by Rosewater Elizabeth is a delicate, reverent interpretation. Home’s version of The Boy With the Thorn in His Side seems promising with its woozy, off-balance musical backdrop, but somehow the vocals veer just a wee bit too much into incoherent, distracting wonkiness. And while Q-Burns Abstract Message’s instrumental rendering of Reel Around the Fountain is undoubtedly dreamy and beautiful, I wouldn’t necessarily notice that it was the song it purported to be.
Because I feel an attachment to this album and its eponymous track, I have decided to run my first contest/giveaway. 24 Hour Service Station has printed up a limited number of CD versions of Hand in Glove: The Smiths Tribute, and are kind enough to let me run this contest. To enter to win one of three CD copies, please email me with your favourite Smiths cover version by midnight September 27, 2010 – please use subject line “Hand in Glove Giveaway.” Once the contest closes, I will draw three winners and contact them for mailing information.
**UPDATE** The contest deadline has been extended to midnight October 4, 2010. **UPDATE**
To give you a few more Smiths covers that I enjoy…