Category: Bettye LaVette

Sinéad O’Connor Covers: from Disney to Dolly, from Nirvana to Nilsson

March 16th, 2008 — 02:59 am

I toyed with using today’s post to address some of the unsung heroes of traditional Irish Folk Music, but I’m no expert on the subject. Berkeley Place got to Van Morrison first, I’ve only got a few good U2 covers left, and Wednesday’s post on Celtic Punk was pretty thorough. And even with the SXSW posts starting to get a bit thick on the ground, there’s still plenty of bloggers out there dropping diverse sets of Irish and Celtic music on you this weekend.

But never fear, faithful reader: I’m not about to leave you empty handed on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day. I may not remember how to code that little accented e in her name, but I do know that the more I hear of her, the more impressed I’ve been with the deliberate interpetive power of one particular Irish folkrocker. And since she’s terribly underrated in the American soundscape, what better way to celebrate the fire of the Irish than to provide an introduction to Sinead O’Connor?

In fact, in many ways, Sinead O’Connor is the perfect counterpart and compliment to our earlier post on Celtic Punk. Behaviorally, Sinead is sociopolitical punk: the shaved head, the infamous pope-shredding on Saturday Night Live. But sonically, Sinead is anything but. Her voice is little-girl innocent, even when angered to a shaky open-throated vibrato; though she can rock with the best of them, her preferred arrangements and phrasing, especially in coversong, tend towards that full sound which best supports her slow phrasing and lush, languid tone.

Though they’re not usually clustered, this puts Sinead in a select group of like-voiced and like-minded women, such as Dar Williams, Bjork, and Ani DiFranco: contemporaries who set the standard for serious world-changing worldbeat-slash-folk music clothed in breathy high-vibrato vocal sweetness and pop production value.

Of these women, though I love Dar, and respect Ani, when we’re talking about coversong I’d have to put Sinead at the top of the panetheon. Primarily, this is because Sinead has an especially gifted ability to play the tension between punk sensibility and sweet, sultry performance effectively in other people’s songs. Few performers of any type can do this as well, and with as much versatility. If all you’ve heard of Sinead’s cover songs is her poppy take on Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U, even if you love her angsty take to pieces, you’ve probably been guilty of severely underestimating this pop punk pixie.

As a cover artist, Sinead brings an unparalleled range to her performances. Her softer song choices clearly are designed to maximize the potential for interpretation to bring new and often ironic meaning to familiar song. Her breathy take on Someday My Prince Will Come isn’t wistful; it’s resigned, conflicted, and startlingly feminist. The echoing ghost-like etherial beauty she brings to Nirvana’s once-grungy All Apologies isn’t restrained so much as angelic: loving and deliberate, it sounds like it comes from Cobain’s coffin.

But Sinead isn’t a one-trick pony, choosing songs to suit a particular strength of interpretation. When a song inherently speaks to the sort of tension she can create through lyrical interpretation, she forgoes use of dissonance between song and voice, letting herself go.

The results are diverse, and equally impressive. Her cover of older political Irish songs like The Foggy Dew tend to be pure and loudly true to the original mournful fife and drum cadence. The build she brings to House of the Rising Sun uses her full spectrum: In five minutes of blues, you can hear an emotional cycle that some artists take a lifetime to scan. And her cover of Dolly Parton’s Dagger Through the Heart manages to be both true-blue bluegrass and emphathetically the most incredible take on Parton’s original wail and frustration in an otherwise excellent collection.

Heck, let’s skip the Prince cover; it’s weak by comparison. Here’s the Sinead O’Connor you should have been listening to all along: the songs mentioned above, and a few more that I could go on about for hours. It may not all be pub music, and celebrating a countercultural bisexual critic of the Catholic Church may not make the conservatives happy. But this is music with the true fire of the Irish in every note. And whether you agree with her politics or not, you just can’t dismiss her craft, her breadth, or the power of her voice.

Sinead O’Connor‘s prolific career has resulted in a vast collection of albums which run the gamut from edgy poprock to atmospheric soundtrack pop to acoustic singer-songwriter folk; though I’m usually reluctant to link to Amazon, Sinead’s website uses it, so head on over to buy her work.

Not sure where to start? Sinead’s newest release Theology is a two-disk set which should make everyone happy: one CD offers stripped down versions of her songs; the other recasts the same songs with a full band. Her reworked version of traditional gospel ballad River of Babylon sounds excellent on both, as do her covers of Curtis Mayfield and Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber. Taken as sets, the covers AND the doubled albums speak perfectly to both the diversity and excellence I was getting at above.

Finally, lest we forget that Sinead is not just a coverartist, today’s bonus coversongs show that Sinead’s songwriting displays the same power and creative energy she brings to her performance. I saw Bettye LaVette do her a capella version of I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got in a cramped jazz club a while back, just before she hit the blogs; though Bettye’s is a totally different sound, it still fits, emotionally.

664 comments » | Bettye LaVette, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Harry Nilsson, Hilary Scott, Holiday Coverfolk, Nirvana, Sinead O'Connor