It’s probably not unfair to suggest that Mark Lanegan likes to keep himself occupied these days. Barely had an extensive tour in support of his Blues Funeral album ended when up popped Black Pudding, his collaboration with friend Duke Garwood. Add to that a whole host of one-off collaborations and contributions to other projects (one is in the post as I type, another – and very exciting to me – one is awaiting release), and you’d perhaps forgive him for wanting to put his feet up for a bit and listen to other people make music for a while and for a change. For a short while, this might have actually been the plan, before he then got back up again and gathered together favourites and friends to follow-up his 1999 I’ll Take Care Of You collection of covers with an even more far-reaching and tender set that can only brighten his star further.
Hitting his record collection at both ends and several points in between, Imitations finds Lanegan exploring cues from both his parents and his peers, and as soon as the strings open up Chelsea Wolfe’s Flatlands, it’s clear that this is no ordinary record, even by his own “not making ordinary records” standards. As with The aforementioned I’ll Take Care Of You, these are songs that are not so much bent around the singer’s apparent iron will, but gently coaxed around a voice willing to give up a bit of ground to accommodate them, which lends both the songs and their vocalist here a soft, warm edge.
There’s a couple of ways to approach an album of other people’s’ stuff. One is to assemble a bunch of songs that fit and flow, or there’s the aesthetically stranger but ultimately more satisfying way of going “sod that, these are the songs that I’m doing and these are the songs that are going to be on there”. It does lend Imitations an air of hopping from one musical epoch to another, but it’s all done with such grace and a sense of happiness in sharing that it would be weird to imagine a better way of presenting these songs. Indeed, the weirdest moment (and one of my favourite moments) on the record comes in flashback form where his treatment of Frank Sinatra’s Pretty Colours comes closest to something from his previous cover set in the form of Creeping Coastline Of Lights by LA oddsters The Leaving Trains. And unlike other albums of reworked material, it doesn’t require knowledge or affection for the originals, as Mark’s own affection is more than enough to convince even the most rock-minded amongst his fanbase could quite happily sit and listen to him belt out an Andy Williams number with a light heart and something in their eye.
Something else that warms the cockles (or equivalent) is reading through the assembled cast list and seeing returning faces from previous albums. Mike Johnson’s name is one that immediately springs to mind as a return that is fondly welcome, as is that of former Screaming Trees drummers Mark Pickerel and Barrett Martin. There is a small double-take when the name of Bill Rieflin turns up frequently, as he is more familiar in this parish as tubthumper with noisier acts such as Ministry and Pigface, but he does a great job here and it’s not like Lanegan isn’t averse to assembling as eclectic a set of drummers on his solo albums as possible.
For such a varied set, it’s hard to pick out favourites as I suspect that they’ll change with whatever mood this album gets revisited in. For now though, I’d have to plump for the Side One pairing of Deepest Shade and You Only Live Twice – a great coupling of recent (an unreleased Twilight Singers piece) and past (Nancy Sinatra’s Bond theme), showing just how reverently he can take something from one of his best friends and make it utterly his own, or conversely doing the same thing to a classic tune by removing the thing that made it such a recognisable piece in the first place (John Barry’s gorgeous orchestral sweeps, although this may well be because Robbie Williams has yet to return them) and still making it sound stunning.
I guess it’s just a pleasure these days to listen to something uncynically nice. It can sometimes feel as if it could all collapse around your ears as one’s brain tries to free itself from this beautiful comfort zone and return to a grumpy normality. But that’s the point of Easy Listening, and it takes the steady hand and (as evidenced here) light and airy tones of someone like Mark Lanegan to keep the glamour going over the course of the record. You may well want to rush out into the garden and swear loudly and vigorously to bring balance to the universe once it’s over, but as soon as you come back in (and probably shortly before the police arrive, alerted by surprised neighbours) you’ll want to put it back on again. And if you still can’t get your head around the fact that this is a rather brilliantly-realised collection of songs regardless of their original genre, just imagine how wide this will blow Mark Lanegan’s audience, and how many grandmas will flock to the online store of their choice to find more of this nice man off that nice record with some tunes they remembered from their own youth – and that the Law Of Averages dictates that at least a few of these will make Here Comes That Weird Chill their next purchase. That image alone makes Imitations a curiously essential purchase.