It’s not only what you sing but whom you sing with. William Dart tests out that hypothesis using new highly collaborative albums by Sheryl Crow and Iggy Pop.
I’m somewhat unscrupulously seizing upon a Beatles song as an introduction to a selection of some unexpected comings-together on two recent CDs.
Unscrupulous because back in 1969, John Lennon wrote ‘Come Together’ with staunch political intent to support Timothy Leary’s campaign for the Californian governorship, a post which was won by Ronald Reagan on his way to the presidency.
These musical comings together might be as straightforward as Sheryl Crow’s new album, Threads, which is essentially built around a series of duets with friends.
Crow was doing the press circuit earlier this year. She talked to The Guardian about some of the hard times she’d endured, including a few years as a backing singer for Michael Jackson.
On the other hand, with NPR, she spoke more positively about her new album.
Sheryl Crow loves the tradition of actually making records, bringing back for her the dreams that these artefacts inspired in her younger days. But at the same time, she admits that the CD is a dying art form, something for people to cherry-pick songs from and then put them on their MP3 playlists.
Perhaps this is why she’s given us a choice of 17 tracks on the new disc, with a generous running time of 75 minutes.
Inevitably, Sheryl Crow herself does some cherry-picking during interviews, to talk about working with a particular artist.
Any comments about Keith Richards, who partners her in the Rolling Stones song, ‘The Worst’, are pretty generalized, despite Richards turning up with Stevie Nicks, George Harrison and Bob Dylan as four of her personal heroes — runners up only Mahatma Gandhi.
Crow and Richards in tandem is a pretty low-key affair, alongside the Stones’ 1994 original off their Voodoo Lounge album, which benefitted from the musical pouting of Mick Jagger and some folky fiddle from Frankie Gavin.
Crow and Richards keep the unexpected chord shifts, although they don’t have the same sense of shivery surprise this time around. And Richards is, once again, relegated to adding simpatico back-up.
Many of the tracks on Sheryl Crow’s Threads album come with built-in memories.
‘The Worst’ takes her back to her school-teaching days in St Louis when she experienced Richards live with Chuck Berry at a taping session for the documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll.
Another song, ‘Live Wire’, a Crow original that sure lives up to its name, sees her with two women who figured prominently in her teenage and earlier years — Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples.
There’s an amusing video clip in which they do a little bit of rehearsing with some spieling on the side. Crow’s absolute adoration of her two colleagues is palpable. And, on disc, they give all they’ve got to telling their tales, spiced up with licks of Bonnie Raitt’s signature slide guitar.
‘Live Wire’ turned out to be the second single from Sheryl Crow’s new Threads album. The first was her duet with the late Johnny Cash, singing her own ‘Redemption Day’, which first appeared, delivered by her, 23 years ago.
Johnny Cash heard this recording at the time and put down his own version just before his death in 2003. It eventually appeared posthumously, seven years after this, on the sixth of his American Recordings CDs, titled, rather grimly, Ain’t No Grave in an atmospheric setting of which Cash was an unrivalled master.
The sepulchral piano chime in Cash’s cover verson is very much part of the 2019 coming together, from the first sounds that you hear, before admiration takes over the skill with which Crow’s re-recorded vocals have being ingeniously patched into those of the late Cash.
Other felicitous touches also stand out — lovely moments of Coplandesque plein-air piano, high and clear, with one recurring chord pricked by a piquant dissonance.
And, above all, the dialogue of sorts, from both sides of the grave, when both singers call out for freedom.
One name which doesn’t appear as a collaborator on Sheryl Crow’s Threads, although he could well have fitted in, is Iggy Pop. While the coming together of these two might raise a few eyebrows, the venerable Godfather of Punk is no stranger to adventurous partnerships.
And who could forget his and Debbie Harry’s riotous trip to Cole Porter Land for the 1990 Red Hot + Blue project?
The wild chaos-dispensing Iggy of such albums as Fun House and Raw Power is long gone and his later albums have shown him very responsive to a variety of musicians working alongside him.
But then, even back in 1969, right at the beginning, there was that extraordinary ten-minute incantation titled ‘We Will Fall’, set against John Cale’s viola and lacey freeform guitar.
Two years ago, in his 2016 album, Post Pop Depression, the trio behind the sound of the sessions was Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age, Dean Fertita of The Dead Weather and Matt Helder of Artic Monkeys. These three constructed an impressively primal backdrop for the song ‘American Valhalla’.
But don’t expect too much Wagnerian gravitas, when Valhalla is saucily rhymed with holler.
There are new forces at work in Iggy Pop’s latest album, titled Free, with an opening track that’s essentially an instrumental, apart from a few brief spoken words, credited to the pen of Lou Reed.
The two responsible for setting this up are producer and trumpeter Leron Thomas and the ingenious guitarist Sarah Lipstate, working under the name of Noveller.
It’s Noveller who provides the guitarscape behind Iggy Pop when he reads the Dylan Thomas poem, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ – a significant choice with its famous injunction to rage against the dying of the light, here coming out of the mouth of this 72-year-old perennial stirrer.
But even firebrands get tired. The album itself is the product of the singer’s utter exhaustion after strenuous touring, and feeling the desire to put on shades, turn his back and walk away. It was freedom that was the only state worth pursuing, as he put it, not happiness or love necessarily, but the feeling of being free.
Yet, for all the sombre tones that the album deals out, there are sparks of light, and some laconic humour when he gender twists a well-known Ian Fleming hero, with Faith Vern as a lollipop wielding 007.
Yet old fire still simmers in a track like ‘Dirty Sanchez’ where expletives fly with his trademark fury. And there’s an extraordinary minute-long prelude provided by Leron Thomas.
Leron Thomas is also responsible for mood-enhancing the album’s most resonant track, in which Iggy Pop reads a Lou Reed poem, originally recited by its author at New York’s St Mark’s Church in 1971, and due to be published soon.
Here it has the best preview possible, speaking poignantly and potently to the state of America and the world today.
'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
'Come Together' (Lennon, McCartney) – The Beatles
'The Worst' (Jagger, Richards) – Sheryl Crow feat. Keith Richards
'Live Wire' (Crow, Trott) – Sheryl Crow feat. Bonnie Raitt & Mavis Staples
'Redemption Day' (Crow) – Sheryl Crow
'Redemption Day' (Crow) – Johnny Cash
American VI: Ain't No Grave
'Redemption Day' (Crow) – Sheryl Crow & Johnny Cash
'Well Did You Evah!' (Porter) – Iggy Pop & Debbie Harry
Red, Hot & Blue
'We Will Fall' (Pop et al) – The Stooges
'American Valhalla' (Pop, Homme) – Iggy Pop
Post Pop Depression
'Free' (Pop et al) – Iggy Pop
'James Bond' (Thomas) – Iggy Pop
'Dirty Sanchez' (Thomas) – Iggy Pop
'We Are the People' (Reed, Thomas) – Iggy Pop