Thursday, February 28, 2008

CD of the Day, 2/28/08: Freedy Johnston-My Favorite Waste of Time

Freedy Johnston has always been one of my favorites; he, David Mead and Josh Rouse have comprised my "holy trinity" of singer-songwriters. While Rouse has been over-prolific and Mead has been about just right, Freedy hasn't put out an album of new, original studio material since 2001's Right Between The Promises. At long last, his site promises a new disc of original material (Rain On The City) which he presumably is in the studio recording. In the meantime, he's finally released his long-rumored disc of covers, My Favorite Waste of Time.

Freedy's a natural for covers, with his everyman type of voice and appreciation of pop music history. He's long been known for his liberal use of covers in live shows, he's teased us in later releases with a few. Promises' leadoff single was a cover of the Edison Lighthouse classic "Love Grows", and the hard-to-find Live at 33 1/3 included covers of the Hollies' "Bus Stop" and the Cole Porter chestnut "Night and Day", the latter two of which appear in studio form here. My general policy on covers albums has been that the artist shouldn't be content with note-for-note and inflection-for-inflection reproductions, but rather bring something of himself to the album; in other words, to make the songs his own and of a piece with his original material.

In most instances, Freedy accomplishes this task. The disc opens with the title track, Marshall Crenshaw's oft-covered B-side. Freedy's contribution here is to speed up the tempo a hair and to add a punchy guitar solo in the bridge; it would have fit nicely on Promises with the "Love Grows" cover. I have to confess I'm not familiar with the original of NRBQ's "I Want You Bad", and as a result it sounds to my ears as a Freedy original circa his brilliant 1997 disc Never Home, akin to tracks such as "I'm Not Hypnotized" and "He Wasn't Murdered" from that disc. An enjoyable version of the Bacarach-David classic "Do You Know The Way to San Jose?" follows, and it would take some real work to murder that number, which Freedy thankfully doesn't - in fact, he adds a bit of a Latin beat to it and it almost comes across as something that could have been on one of Rouse's post-move-to-Spain discs.

Another highlight is the somewhat out-of-left-field cover of Don Henley's "The Sad Cafe" from the Eagles' Hotel California The Long Run. Freedy really captures the beauty in the track that Henley's larger-than-life persona might tend to overshadow. For the true connection to power pop on the disc, there's a cover of Matthew Sweet's "I've Been Waiting", with the added touch of horns. Also interesting is Tom Petty's "Shadow of a Doubt (Complex Kid)", which Freedy also makes sound like a Never Home outtake. The new version of "Bus Stop" (which was solo guitar on 33 1/3) has horns and an electric sitar, a nice touch, and a loungy, almost bossa nova version of "Night and Day" closes things in fine fashion.

The only missteps here are the pair of McCartney covers which appear back-to-back in the middle of the disc. Freedy's "Listen to What the Man Said" is OK, but a little too note-for-note for my tastes. But the real problem is "Let 'em In". As much as I love Sir Paul, it's not exactly a reach to say he could write some of the most banal lyrics ever, getting many of these type of tunes across on his sheer charisma, charm and star power. "Let 'em In" may have the been the most banal of them all, and with all due respect to Freedy, he's no McCartney in the charisma/charm department, so it comes off just as silly as Joe Posnanski found it (scroll down to the italicized text following the first asterisk).

Nevertheless, this is one of the better covers albums I've heard in quite a while, so if you're any kind of Freedy Johnston fan, or just love several of the tracks here (aside from "Let 'em In"), head on over to his official site where it's available exclusively and pick up a copy. Unfortunately, there aren't any samples on his site (or elsewhere), so you're going to have to take my word on this one.


Anonymous said...

Sad Cafe is on The Long Run not Hotel California

Steve said...

You are correct sir (or ma'am). I had it mixed up with "The Last Resort".