Simple Minds was one of the last bands that I would
have expected a covers record from. Don’t ask me why, but
I just didn’t peg them as the type. Needless to say, I was
fascinated by Neon Lights when it arrived. I pondered
it for days before I even put it on. I just don’t think I
knew what to expect. Jim Kerr is a brilliant vocalist
with a ton of integrity built in. I expected the songs to
be portrayed with his own special touch…the "Simple Minds
way" of doing them. The list of artists covered is also
expansive, spanning contemporaries of the band during the
Eighties, to Sixties classics to Krautrock. Well known songs,
to obscure diamonds in the rough. Are these tunes straight-up
covers or "interpretations" based on the originals?
And what was the success rate of the project? Let’s take a
listen and see for ourselves.
Right out of the box, Kerr and Company bust through an updated
version of the Van Morrison/Them classic "Gloria".
You wouldn’t really recognize it though as the band spices
it up with techno beats and a bouncier groove derived from
the original. Kerr’s vocals are hidden in the mix; yet they
are as full and smooth as ever. It definitely has a sound
and feel all of it’s own. The band takes a step back from
re-interpretation for David Bowie’s "Man Who Sold
The World". Kerr cites Bowie as a large influence in
his musical endeavors, and it’s evident in this fairly straightforward
rendition. The band keeps the early 70’s space rock feel in
place and augments it, adding a bit more "spaciness"
to Bowie’s already "Martian" persona. Former Buzzcock
Pete Shelley’s lesser-known "Homosapien" gets
a hint of an update with flashes of techno programming, and
more of that dance groove that appeared on "Gloria".
You can hear some of the classic Simple Minds sounds filter
in and out of the grooves…but where this tune ultimately falls
short is in the drum department. A live drummer would have
added much more force and vigor compared to the programmed
beats. The first single from the collection is a rejuvenated
take on Patti Smith’s "Dancing Barefoot."
The trend of club influenced beats and grooves continues,
yet the band keeps the arrangement sparse, allowing the vocal
come forward and captivate your attention. This is where this
song excels…Kerr’s smooth voice. It’s rich body and comforting
aroma puts most of what Juan Valdez brings back from
the coffee fields in the dustbin. We even get a taste of the
soul influenced backing vocals found in early Simple Minds
work. The band nicks the title track, "Neon Lights",
from Krautrock legends Kraftwerk. A hearty piano takes some
of the lead bits from the original, but the band remembers
to retain the airy and ethereal elements from Kraftwerk’s
box of tricks. Even Kerr gets into the act with an easy and
poignant reading of the lyrics. The "computer filter"
in the last verse is a kitchy, yet relevant embellishment.
This understated update is splendidly done. Another one of
Kerr’s idols gets put through the wringer as they take on
the mighty Doors classic "Hello I Love You."
A sinister, yet not quite industrial bank of sounds is employed
emphasizing the gritty street element of Jim Morrison’s
tale. Again, strength comes from Kerr’s vocals. I’d give this
re-working an A for its use of claustrophobic sounds and moods.
Kerr and the band wanted to pay homage to their contemporaries
from the Eighties scene, and picked a slightly unlikely candidate—Echo
And The Bunnymen. "Bring On The Dancing Horses"
is completely stripped down on the musical level and turned
inside out. A dub-influenced groove is laid out over another
understated dance groove. Like "Gloria", you have
no idea what the tune is until Kerr comes in with a faithful
reading of the lyrics. When the guitars come in for the choruses,
the whole package comes together. Again…where’s the real drums?
I bet this re-working would kick live. Switching gears back
to the past, how ‘bout some Neil Young? The band places
an appropriately dark and claustrophobic twist on "The
Needle And The Damage Done." A big beat drum loop gets
us going, leading into some heavy guitar. Before you know
it, the walls come in on you slowly as the sound is compressed
and turned even more lo-fi. Fascinating. Another influence
on the Simple Minds is accented with their cover of Roxy
Music’s "For Your Pleasure." Like the Bowie
tune, they give this one a fairly straightforward reading,
adding just a few of their now familiar sweeping embellishments
and mood altering tactics. In a similar vein of influence,
the Velvet Underground staple "All Tomorrow’s
Parties" is tackled with vivacity. A full spectrum of
noisy additions and a fat bass steal your attention, accenting
the tension that Kerr brings to the vocals. The obscurity
mine is dipped into again for "Being Boiled" a very
early Human League tune (and one I’m not familiar with).
As one would expect, it’s full of those thick sounds that
characterized the time period. I really dig the vocals and
the sounds used, but it seems like they’re trying too hard
to make it to the dancefloor. The routine dance-beat is tired
and played out, as are some of the cliched "dance sounds"
we have been hearing for years. Not the best one on the record.
The record is closed out with Joy Division’s "Love
Will Tear Us Apart." I’ll tell you one thing; Kerr’s
got balls. I would never cover this one…it’s a sacred cow
to me, and quite frankly, this is terrible. The dance groove
employed here is atrocious, routine and outdated. The Giorgio
Morodor hip-hop/disco sounds just don’t fit…and the whole
soul of this song has been stripped away from it. Again, this
approves it should be left alone.
While not everything works as well as it could, the good
and the inventive certainly outnumbers the weak and the half-baked.
The side-steps, for the most part (exception being "Love
Will…"), are forgivable and easily glossed over. I applaud
their updates as having been given a lot of thought, not just
slammed together for some sort of "novelty experiment."
The emphasis on electronic, programmed drums can become a
bit tedious at times, but my guess is that some of this record
is headed to a dance club near you where it should prosper.
The strengths that this band built a career on are still there,
from interestingly thoughtful arrangements to Kerr’s unending
voice. They are in the studio working on material for a new
album; I wonder how much of this sound will show up there?
It should be interesting. Yes, my friends, they have emerged
with their integrity still intact.
— tom topkoff
- The Man Who Sold The World
- Dancing Barefoot
- Neon Lights
- Hello I Love You
- Bring On The Dancing Horses
- The Needle And The Damage Done
- For Your Pleasure
- All Tomorrow’s Parties
- Being Boiled
- Love Will Tear Us Apart
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