If I am totally honest and upfront about it, this is actually a review I said I wouldn't write. I always like to think of myself as completely unbiased when it comes to writing about an album or a song. If I don't like something I will say so, no matter who the artist in question is. I do, however, find this a little harder when the person I'm writing about is someone I'm a big fan of.
So when I knew one of my favourites was releasing a new album, I was in two minds about whether I could do a good job or not. I mean, what if I didn't like the album? Would it make me change my mind on their previous work? It was a bit of a quandary until I decided that if nothing else, it would help me put my thoughts on the album into perspective.
Step forward Mr Mark Morriss, lead singer of the Bluetones, solo artist and the tidiest man in rock. Allegedly. The album in question is his third solo studio release entitled The Taste of Mark Morriss. A pretty clever title indeed when you discover that this is an entire album of cover versions. It's a selection of songs that have been chosen as those that have not only inspired him, but also helped to shape the direction in which his musical career has taken.
The thing that struck me about the album and the journey it takes through the selected tracks is that it feels a bit like a love letter to someone.
On the first cursory glance, the track listing features quite a few songs that I recognise, but also a few that I have never heard of before. Fans have already been treated to some live versions of a couple of tracks when Mark has been touring so I kind of assumed I knew what I would be listening to on the album. But no, I was wrong.
Sticking with the whole being honest thing, I have to admit, it did take me a few listens to get into this album. It didn't hit me on the first listen, but I am happy to say that after some non-stop playing and allowing it to get under my skin, I have found quite a lot of beauty hidden away in these tracks. These aren't just your average, straight down the line covers of songs. What Mark has done (and what he is particularly good at) is taking them and adding just enough of his own spin to make them sound true enough to the original, but with that added Morriss touch. And that's the thing that makes this record different to other typical cover versions.
The album opens with "This Pullover" which was originally a hit for Jess Conrad back in 1961. Incidentally, the original was voted one of the worst songs ever so why Mark would choose to cover it, I'm not sure. But hey, it has all the soundings of the sixties and is inoffensive enough to have a certain charm about it so I was quite happy to keep listening. Next up is "Rock and Roll Woman" by Buffalo Springfield. Having heard this performed live previously and owning the original song, I knew that this was going to be a fine version and I wasn't wrong. It's spot on and sounds pretty damn great.
I guess the most recognisable tracks for most people might be "Self Control" by Laura Branigan and "Love Comes Quickly" by the Pet Shop Boys. Both are originally big 80's synth numbers, which have been subtly tweaked by Mr Morriss. The former doesn't have the same powerful '80s sound (although we still have some synthesised backing going on), but we have an added guitar at the chorus to make the song sound pleasingly refreshing and modern. The same can be said for the latter track. In fact, as someone who has always been a fan of the Pet Shop Boys, I actually prefer this version to the original. Mark's voice seems to sit with it perfectly and you could be fooled into thinking it's actually one of his own songs.
Part way though the track listing we come to a Madonna song that for some reason was never featured on her greatest hits album. Not sure why as "Angel" is one of the only Madonna songs I actually like. It has previously been covered by Darren Hayes who stuck pretty close to the original, fast moving, electro 80's pop sound when he released it. Having heard Mark sing this at a gig as a stripped back guitar version, I thought the album track would be in the same vain. Surprisingly though it's not. It features some interesting guitar work and instead of the upbeat sound of the original, it's slower and comes across as a darker, very sad sounding song. Perhaps almost with a sense of longing about it. This is the track that took me multiple listens to get into, probably because I like the original so much, but now I think I finally get it.
One of the other stand out tracks is "Duchess" which is a Scott Walker song. Once again, I have heard this live and have the original so I was pleased to note that it sticks very closely to Scott's version. I think from listening to it you can tell that Mark is a fan of Scott Walker and that there is a certain amount of pride in singing one of your hero's songs which is pretty evident here. Well, to me anyway.
Another big choice is the inclusion of a Sisters of Mercy song. "Lucretia (My Reflection)" doesn't feature the heavy industrial sound of the original, but has something of a lighter touch and feel about it with a bit of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells thrown in for good measure. It could have gone horribly wrong as it sounds like it shouldn't really work, but actually, it's a very nice surprise to hear.
The thing that struck me about the album and the journey it takes through the selected tracks is that it feels a bit like a love letter to someone. I am no doubt way off on my analysis of that (and of course it's just my opinion), but Mark has said before that he doesn't write love songs in the conventional sense so perhaps using other people's songs has enabled him to sing about love in the "usual" way for once. If nothing else though, it showcases how much talent he has as a singer and performer.
This album could be received in several ways I guess. Fans of Mark, like myself, will no doubt listen to it with great enthusiasm and enjoy finding out what kind of music makes our hero tick. Fans of the original artists might have a listen and will hopefully discover someone who appreciates the original tracks so much that he wants to breathe some new life into them and get them heard in a new forum.
I don't think there is anything wrong with that at all. Taking on the music that you love and trying to emulate and do it justice is a natural route for an artist to take. But to take it and add to it just enough to make it yours is a very special thing indeed. Not many people can pull off taking a classic song and making it their own: this album is proof that Mr Morriss without a doubt can do just that. Highly Recommended.