Various Artists: Please, Please, Please: A Tribute to The Smiths

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Various Artists:
Please, Please, Please: A Tribute to The Smiths
(American Laundromat Records)
[Rating: 3.5]

Who knew The Smiths were this depressing? Yes, the lyrics are often bleak, but the song craft is still of the tongue-in-cheek, cigarette-on-lip variety – almost too smug to sound sad. On Please, Please, Please: A Tribute to The Smiths, a somewhat obscure but skilled collection of artists draws out the dreariness of the ‘80s alt-rockers. Without the glitter, sexiness and flamboyancy of The Smiths’ sound, and the charm and slight arrogance of Morrissey’s voice, there’s nothing left but the wry, sometimes pitiful lyrics of a sensitive guy. And they sound downright heavy.

The 20 songs chosen for the two-disc record are none too obscure, but then, most of The Smiths’ cuts sound like hits. By slowing the tempos way down on some tracks, the artists manage to highlight the sadness rather than the humor of the songs. Anna-Lynne Williams’ vocals are a puddle of tears on Trespassers William’s rendition of “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” and Joy Zipper makes a reverb-ridden, heavy-hearted job of “What Difference Does It Make?” Chikita Violenta goes dark and electronic on “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” with lyrics almost whispered, clattery percussion and synthesizer that manifest the dark club image The Smiths conjured so well.

They’re not all doused in gloom, though. Built To Spill’s Doug Martsch does a sparkly “Reel Around The Fountain” with twee, wiry guitars made even more dear by his sweet vocals. Subtle nuances stand out, like the biting and somehow exotic vocals in Girl In A Coma’s slower version of “Rubber Ring,” or the addition of strings on Solvents’ “Is It Really So Strange?”

The intrigue of Please, Please, Please comes from the heavily manipulated tracks; the orchestral “How Soon Is Now?” by Mike Viola and The Section Quartet recreates, with strings, all the tension and provocativeness The Smiths created with slide guitar. But the best of the record are the tracks that emulate The Smiths stylistically: Chloe Chaidez of Kitten sounds as though she could have fit right in with the band when she gets into the repetitive “and the DJ” lines of the breezy “Panic.” And The Wedding Presents put a glamorous and bristly spin on “Hand In Glove” that doesn’t stray far from the original.

It’s hard to cover a Smiths song. Something about Morrissey’s lyrics, as well as his vocal style, make The Smiths’ songs seem genderless and universal, as though they were neither written by, nor directed at, either gender. They wrote slick, glamorous love-hate songs with both sharp edges and tender spots, which are difficult to recreate simultaneously. But the artists on Please, Please, Please get as close as anyone can get; they just bring out more tender spots than sharp edges.

 

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