Friday, November 9, 2012

Wendy James Shoots Smith And Dylan

English singer-songwriter Wendy James is sitting on her next solo album and the lineup alone is worth some anticipation. Most notably, she recruited James Williamson (The Stooges) and Jim Sclavunos (Bad Seeds, Grinderman) to help her make it.

The trio has already finished their first studio session with James on keys and vocals, Williamson on guitar and bass, and Sclavunos on drums and percussion. Since they only had enough to time between Stooges shows lay down the first double-sided single, James opted for the cover — You're So Great by Sonic's Rendezvous Band. The song was selected for her recent emphasis on having a Detroit edge.

There was only one problem with her pick. The Sonic's Rendezvous Band never produced studio albums. Everything they recorded was live, leaving some of the lyrics in question. So James and Williamson did the next best thing. They asked Patti Smith (through The Stooges' Scott Asheton) if her late husband Fred ever wrote them down. Smith said he didn't, but was fine with them filling in the blanks.

The cover by James is somewhat of a brilliant anomaly. James deliciously serves up the vocals in pop-rock stylings reminiscent of the Breeders. And then Williamson and Sclavunos lay down their parts with a crystal clarity never known to Smith and his band. In doing so, James and company make it their own while treating the original with the respect it deserves.

The second track makes the double-sided single memorable. 

As difficult as it might be to complement a little known but revered classic, it was Williamson who set the direction for the second track. He asked James for her favorite Bob Dylan song. She said It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding). She first heard the song when she was 13 and it said it explained life perfectly.

The original was written in the summer of 1964 and is widely recognized for some of Dylan's most vivid lyrics. The grim masterpiece is as fitting for the times today as it was back then for all the hypocrisy, commercialism and consumerism. There is no optimism in the piece. It lays bare as what is and will be.

Dylan himself has said it was the one song that always meant the most to him. He also said he could never write it or a song like it again if he tried. It accurately captures a moment in time when people were aware that they were being played, with neither the rules of capitalism nor communism being right, given someone else got to write them. Nowadays people put different labels on their lapels, but it still fits.

To truly appreciate it, both the original and the cover, there is one bootleg that stands out as sharply as the studio version. It's much slower, but remains one of my favorites. Every word stands on its own.

Since 1964, plenty of people have covered It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding), most notably Roger McGuinn (for the Easy Rider soundtrack). But even those were great takes, none of them capture the very particular aggression James, Williamson and Sclavunos bring to this new rendition.

Williamson beautifully handles the up and down chord progressions, paying homage to the folk-blues but setting it on fire. Sclavunos punctuates with a percussion arrangement that was never meant to be in the song, but you would never know based on his contribution.

James especially stands out in her punk-infused rock spin. Whereas Dylan delivered it with a calm, matter-of-fact certainty, James kicks in five decades of aggravation that the same rules and problems they cause are still being played over and over again. It's also a welcome rawness to her repertoire.

You're So Great/It's Alright Ma Bleeds 9.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.  

Wendy James has come along way since the pop-punk appeal of Transvision Vamp and Racine, which grew out of her work with Elvis Costello. After Racine broke up in 2008, James made the right move returning to her solo career. I Came Here To Blow Minds was a solid album, but it's her collaboration with Williamson and Sclavunos that will likely elevate her exposure and draw some serious attention. Spring can't be here soon enough.

The double-sided single You're So Great/It's Alright Ma (It's Alright Ma (Main) (24bit-Mstrd) 2) is on Amazon. You can also download it from iTunes. The single was self-released without the benefit of a label. The single will also be released as a special 10-inch press. There aren't enough grooves for It's Alright, Ma to fit on anything smaller.
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