Other People Wrote These
Ciaran Lavery gives us exclusive access to his latest release featuring covers of Talking Heads and more
In pop music, cover versions of other people’s songs can generally be slotted into three categories.
The first is the pointless retread: a slavish copy retaining the instrumentation and melody but somehow extracting all that was great about the original. See Robson and Jerome's inexplicably successful run of number one hits in the mid-1990s, including dire covers of The Righteous Brothers, Frankie Laine and Jimmy Ruffin – released under the auspices of Simon Cowell, of course.
The second type became popular through Radio One’s long running ‘Live Lounge’ segment of the Jo Whiley (latterly Ferne Cotton) show, where modern artists earnestly cover songs by their contemporaries. These have ranged over the years from the ridiculous (Frank Turner’s cover of Take That’s 'Greatest Day') to the sublime (The Futureheads performance of Kate Bush’s 'Hounds of Love').
The third – much rarer category – is a song covered in a way that transforms the original into something both completely different and artistically valid. An example of this is The Flaming Lips' take on Kylie Minogue’s 'Can’t Get You Out of My Head', which transforms a perfectly pleasant pop song into a mad stalker’s lament.
Thankfully, with his forthcoming EP Other People Wrote These, Aghagallon singer-songwriter Ciaran Lavery confidently places himself in the third category.
Following up his critically acclaimed debut album Not Nearly Dark with a 4-song set of cover versions may not seem the most logical of moves for a singer rightly praised for the quality of his own songwriting, but Lavery has neatly sidestepped the pressure of releasing new original material too soon.
It is only a matter of months since Not Nearly Dark was released, after all, and it’s still finding its way in the world. A stop-gap EP that serves the dual purpose of keeping his name current in music circles as well as introducing a different side to Lavery is a smart decision.
What is surprising, though, are the songs covered. The ghost of The Band’s Levon Helm can be found in Lavery’s world weary croon on his debut album, and there were musical nods to Will Oldham, the late lamented Jason Molina and Tom Waits in the production.
Lavery also served for seven years in excellent alt-country rock band Captain Kennedy, so you could be forgiven for expecting covers that veered toward that musical territory.
What we get, though, are radical re-workings of songs made famous by Cyndi Lauper, Talking Heads, Pat Benatar and Lionel Richie. Produced by Mike Mormecha and arranged by Mormecha and Lavery, Other People Wrote These features additional (and superb) instrumentation by Joshua Burnside and Rachael Boyd.
'I Drove All Night' was a massive hit for Cyndi Lauper in 1989 and Roy Orbison in 1992. Both versions were anthemic, powerful rock songs with a melody that stuck. However, Lavery has stripped the melody from the song and transformed what on the surface is a lyric about the distances one would travel to be with a loved one into something much more sinister.
Over plucked banjo, isolated strings and drums, Lavery’s voice is filled with fire, hunger and a deathly need as he sings: 'I drove all night / crept in your room / woke you from your sleep / to make love to you.' There is a sense of dread in the song, the ambiguity of the lyrics brought out by Lavery’s voice and the intricate instrumentation. It’s magnificent.
It is a brave decision to cover a song as well-known – and as well-loved – as Talking Head’s 'Psycho Killer'. The original’s new wave funk is here replaced by strings, drums and a piano pounding like the relentless pursuit of a killer’s footsteps in the night.
'All Fired Up' was originally a hit for 1980s rock diva Pat Benatar. Co-written by Shania Twain and Paul Sabu, it’s a bombastic rock song where every clichéd line battles the one before in a bid for cheesy supremacy. Unfortunately, transforming it into a bruised ballad, regardless of how well it’s sung and played – and Lavery’s voice is wonderful here – does not transform a badly written song into a good song.
In another brave move, the final song on the EP is a cover of Lionel Richie’s classic floor filler 'All Night Long'. Some songs as recorded are definitive, and this is one of them. But that doesn’t prevent Lavery and band from transforming this musical celebration into a beautiful dirge. It shouldn’t work, but it does – wonderfully.
Other People Wrote These succeeds in highlighting the voice, the musicianship and the arranging skills of Lavery and his cohorts. As a sidestep, it’s a diverting and enjoyable one, and a reminder that Northern Ireland has produced yet another remarkable talent even when he’s singing songs not of his own making.
Other People Wrote These will be available for download via Bandcamp from September 22.