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Every week it’s always a joy to find new CDs on my desk, sometimes it’s from a musician I’ve seen many times and sometimes it’s from an artist I really know nothing about. In this case Alison Scott falls into the later category. When I was in charge of the Twin Cities calendar I have seen her name pop up on occasion and indeed her press release confirms that “she has sold out the Dakota Jazz Club over a dozen shows in a row, and is now filling 500 seat theaters.”
Her latest release “Hiding Under The Covers Vol. 2” is aptly named since it is an album made up of covers. She also sent along her mostly original album “Chinese Whispers” which was released back in 2010. The only cover on “Chinese Whispers” is the Grammy Award nominated song “Waterfalls” that was performed by the R&B/hip-hop/soul group, TLC, from way back in 1995. The main factor in Scott’s music is her amazing voice and energy, it’s powerful and it is the focal point that brings it all together. The next thing is her backing band which is on as much as she is with the recordings I received. When looking at the two albums, the mainstays of the band are Kevin Bowe who plays guitar and has worked with artists such as Etta James and Johnny Lang; Peter Anderson who has worked with Polara and Honeydogs and Steve Price on bass who has performed with Rex Daisy.
I’ll note right away that the selection of songs that are chosen on this album are pushing things to an edge that I like. She opens up with “Clap Hands” by Tom Waits. The only other female performer I know of that has taken on Tom Waits is Scarlett Johansson. The main thing I have to say about several of the songs on this cover album is that Scott sings the songs almost too well. Scott knocks Johansson out of the ballpark as a vocalist and I personally find it amusing that women take on the one of the most gritty, visceral vocalists and musicians known to contemporary music. This isn’t meant to be sexist, to make an example, I don’t see a whole lot of singer/songwriter guys taking on Mariah Carey, so look at it in that light. What the Scott version lacks versus the Waits version is the rawness. The Waits version has a very uneasy mix of odd percussion and the guitar lead is bordering on avant garde. When Scott does this song, it’s instantly more accessible. With the Scott version, I enjoy the guitar picking, the backing vocals and what is an amazing harmonica solo played by Bowe that ends up lying in the mix throughout the rest of the song after it comes in to play. She pulls these songs off and makes them her own. But are they better and is that what’s even important? What makes a song better than another song? I think we’ve all agreed Nickelback sucks, but how do we determine what’s beyond that?
Scott goes straight from one of the roughest male vocalists into one of the more smooth male voices in modern music, none other than Elton John. The thing about Scott is that she has a distinct voice that wavers around in an almost emotional sense, but in the end it’s just there, spot on, laying it out. With the song “Madman Across the Water,” the strings are there in both songs. The strings are a little different in each version and I can’t decide which I like more but it was a very good decision to get live strings on this cover and not cop out with some keys or something. The Laurels String Quartet held down these duties and they did a terrific job; the quartet includes Josh Misner (violin), Jesse Peterson (violin), Kirsti Petraborg (viola) and Dan Lawonn (cello).
The next song is “Waltz #2” by Elliot Smith. It’s at this point in the review were I just put my foot down and say straight up that these songs are delivered almost too well. What tops off this particular song is that Chris Koza sings along on this track. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic. But with Elliot Smith, it’s the meek and soft spoken vocals that carry the true emotions of his works. You don’t need to have an awesome voice and a super tight band, in the end true feeling and emotion is what the listener who really relates to these kind of lyrics will hold on to.
I really like how Scott switches it up with the song “Trampled Underfoot” by Led Zeppelin. Scott just nails this song like a diva and I’d like to see this performed live. This recording is tight and rocking and right where it should be. It’s not blowing my mind, but it’s fun either way.
The next track is “High & Dry” by Radiohead. Radiohead is a very important band to me and as an open mic host, I think I’ve heard several versions of all the main hits from them at one point or another. Much like the Elliot Smith song, I don’t feel the genuine emotion on this. Scott’s vocals in the chorus are so powerful that it takes away from the overall defeat and hopelessness of the song. If she does another cover album, I sure hope “Paranoid Android” is on there.
The songs “Trouble” by Cat Stevens and “Trust Yourself” by Etta James are also on this album and are taken on very well. With the song “Tomorrow Never Knows” by The Beatles, it is the most original adaptation of any of the songs on the CD and there would be no excuse for it not to be, the original song is psychedelic and was certainly a product of it’s time by one of the biggest rock bands ever. This track easily has the most experimentation and thought to production in it. Between the delivery, female vocal harmonies, effects and instrumentation, I feel quite impressed by how this song and CD in general was handled. This cover takes a twist with a rap which I’m assuming is thrown down by Desdamona out of Saint Paul who is credited in the liner notes. The song jams and rocks out towards the end with and a distorted guitar chord that rings out and then cuts out.
What we have with Alison Scott is what comes off as a great and professional singer who has a band that nicely backs up what she does. The drawbacks on this particular album is that most of the originals carry more genuine emotion than her versions. Scott makes the songs her own, but it’s just doing the songs really well in a way that almost anyone would agree sounds good. There are things going on that do really create something meaningful out of some of the songs, but it’s not until the last track until I see it really making something original. If you’re wondering what I mean by this observation, just look up the Kesha version of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” I look for real and original over what might be considered a perfectly sung and mixed track. There are no lines in music and with how far it’s gone, I think it’s time everyone moved on from any perception at all about what music should be. I can enjoy an act, but I love it when I’m convinced what I’m listening to is real.
The main reason I reviewed this album is because Scott wants to come up here and play. “We’d like to make Duluth our second home and come play there every few months,” read a note that was signed by Alison that came along with the CDs. She has an amazing voice, she’s talented and her band is seasoned, I can’t really think of a single reason to not check her out if you are just a person who likes music that is delivered very well.
The cover of this album is downright adorable to me. Alison holding a stack of records, the first one being Ray Charles. The thick rimmed glasses and slightly moody look made me smile. Scott clearly has some musical taste and although I don’t think she out did the originals, she certainly created something worth listening to with “Hiding Under The Covers.” She will be playing September 28 at The Mitchell Auditorium at St. Scholastica. I would recommend keeping an eye on Scott because she has something going on that I think she could go far with. I wouldn’t have recommended a college gig for her at this point in her making it in to the Twin Ports scene, but she’s played at the Bayfront Blues Fest and at certain venues like Beaner’s Central, so that’s a start. Her next gig after that will be at Tycoon’s on November 10 with Freedy Johnston. That should be a good time.