I was just going into high school when I first heard Mark Lanegan’s soulful voice. It was 1992 and he was fronting Screaming Trees. Their single “Nearly Lost You” was making its rounds on radio and MTV and I fell for it immediately. I rode my BMX to Rose Records, in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, and picked up the cassette of Sweet Oblivion and loved every song. I still love it, actually. It’s a pretty perfect record. Even as a 15-year-old kid, I knew it was embarrassing to have anything to do with the Spin Doctors, and yet I went to my local Sound Warehouse and sheepishly asked for “one Spin Doctors ticket please…” because the Screaming Trees were opening the show.
The Trees were lumped into the grunge scene, but Lanegan didn’t sing with his teeth clenched. He sounded nothing like Layne or Kurt or Vedder or Cornell. His voice seemed to say, “what’s the rush?” While my adolescence was full of rock bands like Screaming Trees or hardcore punk like Minor Threat, it turns out that Lanegan’s early years were spent ingesting the classic ’60s vocal pop, like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Andy Williams, that oozed from the speakers of his parents’ hi-fi. His second covers record, Imitations, pays homage to that music. The record sounds lush and natural, the instrumentation is tasteful and effective, and you can tell that Lanegan has a deep reverence for each song. He treats each song delicately and with respect, so much so that he even pulls himself out of the equation and includes instrumental versions of the songs at the end of the album, as if he’s decided that his voice might have gotten in the way of the song. Nothing sounds forced; you can tell how familiar he is with each arrangement. The band he assembled also treads lightly, but with purpose, with each note. It’s a super mellow record and Lanegan’s voice brings out the sadness that lies just beneath the surface of some of these pop standards. Made famous by singers like Nat King Cole, “Autumn Leaves” takes on a slightly more haunted feeling when Lanegan sinks his teeth into it. “Mack the Knife” is a pop standard best known for Bobby Darin’s bouncy supper-club version, but Lanegan takes it down to an acoustic guitar and bring out the melancholy that lives between the lines. Whereas the pop singers of yesteryear sang these songs in a suit and a smile, you can tell Lanegan does so with neither.
Aside from old chestnuts like “Autumn Leaves,” “Solitaire” and “Mack the Knife,” what you’ll find on Imitations are some seldom-covered songs and, if you’re like me, a compelling introduction to many songs I’d never heard before. But the record isn’t entirely steeped in the past: Interestingly, he also tips his hat to more recent songwriters like Chelsea Wolfe (“Flatlands”) and his friend and fellow Gutter Twin Greg Dulli (the Twilight Singers’ “Deepest Shade”), not to mention Nick Cave (“Brompton Oratory”) and John Cale (“I’m Not the Loving Kind”). He isn’t simply giving these more contemporary songs a ’60s pop-standard makeover — he chose them because they’re cut from the same timeless cloth as the classic, pre-rock tunes elsewhere on the record.
As the singer of a band that also has a covers (and b-sides) record coming out this month (yes, a shameless plug), I’ve spent the last few months reflecting on what this kind of record means, and looked at examples of how they’ve been done right. The throwaway or lazy cover albums exist out there, but they just give a bad name to sincere and purposeful records like Imitations that help tell a band’s or an artist’s story. This album also makes something else very clear: this man knows how to make a record. Lanegan’s career spans longer than I’ve been alive and his experience shows on the production here: string arrangements and orchestral layers float between the subtle background layers of violins on the opener, “Flatland”; on “I’m Not The Loving Kind,” lush, bombastic arcs of symphonic harmonies during the chorus almost drown out the guitar completely.
I can’t say I’ve followed Lanegan’s every move since the Sweet Oblivion days. But whenever I tune in to what this prolific artist is creating, I’m never disappointed. He’s a difficult one to pigeonhole, as he jumps from solo records to singing with Queens of the Stone Age to collaborative albums with artists like Isobel Campbell. But his voice is unmistakable. It’s the kind of voice other singers are jealous of. Ever since a mic was put in front of me, my idea of singing has always been tearing your throat apart while the veins in your neck threaten to burst. So when he opens his mouth and effortlessly puts so much character and color into each hushed cadence, it’s easy to find yourself muttering, “You win Lanegan — you always do.”