Covering some Classics: Morse, Portnoy and George excel.

There seem to be a few covers albums out recently – a few included on this blog. Is this release the best of the lot?

Image via InsideOut Music

When you like an artist, you’ll often enjoy the music that inspired them, especially when they are from your own generation. Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy and Randy George have put together a terrific compilation of both classic and rarer tracks that mean a lot them. That shows in the care they take with recreating the originals, but they still put their own stamp in on them in places.

This collection brings together all three of the cover albums that they have made, a lot of them starting from downtime in the studio.There’s not room to cover all 34 tracks, but here is an overview and some highlights.

Cover to Cover
There’s a distinctly British feel to this first batch of covers originally recorded for fun during sessions for their own music. From ex-Beatles and Clapton (with Cream and Blind Faith) to U2 twenty years later, there are seminal tracks here that are often as good (if not better!) than the originals.

So “Where the Streets Have No Name” both picks up on the original ingredients – The Edge’s rippling guitar lines, that background organ and those high bass lines – as well as adding a little more passion to the vocals and guitar.

Bursting straight into Joe Jackson’s “I’m the Man” really ups the energy. It shows just how much fun they are having letting rip on a simpler track than they usually play. With hindsight, it shows why punk/New Wave had to come along.

The trio care enough to use a brass section on George Harrison’s “What is Love?” and by the time we get to Badfinger’s earworm “Day after Day” it’s clear that they recreate instrumental tones remarkably accurately. There’s that George Harrison guitar again, and Morse’s vocals get surprisingly close to the original voices – there’s a healthy amount of McCartney’s vocal tone on “Maybe I’m Amazed.” No wonder that we catch him saying at the end, “I’m going to need an operation after this!”

A highly-progged version of the Moody Blues’ “Tuesday Afternoon” comes replete with plenty of electric violin. That fiddle also surfaces at the start of an immaculate version of Blind Faith’s gorgeous classic “Can’t Find My Way Home,” which goes from dreamy at the start to gutsy by the end.

It’s also noticeable how singable many of these tracks are, such as the poppy “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (another of the songs with a bit more guitar than the originals had).

Other tracks include The Who’s “I’m Free/Sparks;” Cat Stevens’ “Where Do the Children Play?” and Chicago’s “Feeling Stronger Everyday.”

Cover 2 Cover
This follow-up drives the variety even further, ranging from punk to prog. We get the energy of Elvis Costello’s “Peace Love and Understanding,” Boz Scaggs’ brass-infused “Lido Shuffle” (with synth break) and King Crimson’s minor key “Starless.” The latter again shows how close they can get to the tones of the originals. Fripp’s guitar, Lake’s vocals and the Mellotron all shine through this new version.

A rocked up version of the Bee Gees’ Lennonesque “Lemons Never Forget” shows the value of collections like this, taking a rarer song from a loved band, retaining its psychedelic essence, lengthening it and giving it 21st century production.

Neil Young gets a superb, raw three-track medley with “Southern Man/ Needle and the Damage Done / Cinnamon Girl.” Maybe if they do a fourth collection, we might get “Hurricane.”

Highlights also include an accurate account of “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number;” a full-on, brassy “The letter” (Box Tops), and The Osmonds’ “Crazy Horses,” with some gruff Mike Portnoy vocals.

Other tracks are “Come Sail Away” by Styx (less spacey and meatier than the original); The Police’s “Driven to Tears,” and – maintaining the more soulful feel of this disc – Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw the Light,” including some jazzy piano as it fades out.

Cov3r to Cov3r
This latest set of covers again reveals the trio’s English influences, but it is surprising in its detail. There are repeat appearances of material from Bowie, Tull, Badfinger and King Crimson (which gives the album covers’ graphic artist Thomas Ewerhard an easier job), but none from, say, Genesis (a Morse favourite) – and yet Squeeze come in with two.

“Baker Street” is played fairly straight to start with, but takes off with a heavy and extended guitar solo at the end. Like several others in this collection, this is a fantastic complement to the original. Gerry Raffery’s version has some wonderful subtleties, but this really rocks out.

Lenny Kravitz’s highly Beatles-influenced “Let Love Rule” anthem closes the set, with growly guitar replacing the sax and again extending the outro.

The straight versions are Bowie’s “Life on Mars;” Ringo’s “Don’t Come Easy,” with vocals handled by Portnoy and his daughter Melody; the Squeeze pair “Black Coffee in Bed” (where Morse again catches the original’s vocal tones) and “Tempted,” which picks up some Portnoy vocal cameos. (Tom Petty’s driving song “Runnin’ Down a Dream” is the same length to the second. Woo hoo.)

Other tracks include Yes’s “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed” (a piece built around “Theme from The Big Country” and featuring new Yes singer Jon Davison; Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” and Crimson’s “One More Red Nightmare.”

Throughout these albums, which each have their own flavour, each musician plays out of their skin in making the best version they can that both honours the original and reflects their own personality. This is a veritable radio station of tracks. But despite the huge differences in years and style, they are somehow brought together beautifully by a band that gives each track tremendous respect – enough to suggest that several should be heard by millions alongside the originals.

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