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Under the covers 

Cover songs — the good, the bad & the ugly

North Cackalack's own Nina Simone is commemorated yet again with Remixed & Re-Imagined (Sony Legacy), a project featuring not straight covers of the late hybrid chanteuse's oeuvre but new digital age revisions. Simone standards (and her own cover versions) that you'd expect appear: "Ain't Got No-I Got Life," "Here Comes The Sun" and "O-O-H Child." Yet the must burns are "Funkier Than A Mosquito's Tweeter-Jazzeem's All Styles Remix" and disc closer "Obeah Woman-DJ Logic Remix." The former is an avant-garde breakdown of one of Ike Turner's funkiest forays and DJ Logic's turn firmly situates Simone as a vital foremama of hip-hop.

Willie Nelson, another great song interpreter with a jazzy swing, has teamed up with North Carolina's alt-country enfant terrible Ryan Adams on his latest, Songbird (Lost Highway). Adams produces and supplies the band (his Cardinals, augmented by fine organ playing from Glenn Patscha) and songs. Nelson himself also dusts off some of his own backpages -- like 1990s vintage "We Don't Run" and the new "Back To Earth." When Adams leaves well enough alone and lets Nelson's iconic voice shine, there are great results: "Blue Hotel" and a stunning cover of the Grateful Dead's "Stella Blue." Elsewhere, id-driven Adams ruins the project's versions of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and Gram Parsons' epic romance dirge "$1,000 Wedding." Both arrangements would have Jeff Buckley and Parsons shuddering in their resting places. Of course Nelson's at core tarnish-proof.

Rod Stewart's much-touted "Return to Rock" CD, sadly, is not up to par and lacks even geek-out collaborators such as Adams to add interest. It's not that Stewart's in bad voice on Still the Same ... Great Rock Classics Of Our Time (J Records) -- and frankly, he still appears generally hot (and sports an even hotter baby mama). The problems are a) that most of these performances are relentlessly dull; b) the erstwhile Rod the Mod never truly rocks out; and c) most of the originals Stewart takes on can be heard daily on classic rock radio (so long as you're outside of the bi-coastal capitals). Still the Same ... is disappointing, after pre-release hype which suggested that Stewart's inner rock & roll titan was finally being recouped from the safe, best-selling schmaltz of his American Songbook recordings. Covers of such as the Eagles' "Best of My Love" and Chrissie Hynde's "I'll Stand By You" are never terrible, but they lack inspiration and are undermined by too tasteful backing -- this, despite the presence of such session legends as Leland Sklar, Julia & Maxine Waters, Kenny Aronoff and the great Mike Finnigan on B3. One can easily see where Clive Davis figured the better cuts -- Bonnie Tyler's hit "It's A Heartache," Van Morrison's "Crazy Love" (both graced by Finnigan) -- were self-evident shoe-ins, but even they pale beside the originals. And when he assays Felice & Boudleaux Bryant's "Love Hurts," already covered well in the 1970s (by Gram Parsons) and poorly (by Nazareth), one cannot help but feel Ole GP turning in his grave agin. From this frustration, it's easy to see why many rock snobs claim the case of Stewart is the greatest squandering of talent in rock history. These ears still believe in Rod Stewart; of his generation of rock frontmen, his voice and appearance is the most consistent. But he's got to truly restore his rock jones after about a 25-year freefall. Ian McLagan's recent North Carolina gig and the volatility of Ron Wood's situation in the Rolling Stones suggests Stewart would do better to take a risk and revive the Faces. Check the following YouTube to remember why.

Ol' Skool:; New Skool:

Andrea Bocelli's new live collection, Under the Desert Sky (Decca), includes both a CD and DVD. The Italian vocal master launches his disc with the timeworn Mexican standard "Besame Mucho" -- and it also reappears on the DVD's PBS special recorded at Lake Las Vegas. As "Besame" has been done by everyone from Josephine Baker to Elvis Presley, it's hard to think that the 20th century hit could yield anymore dividends but Bocelli gives it a shot, embedded in lush Spanish guitar. And it's amusing that he's recorded it so successfully for Decca considering that the Beatles played "Bésame Mucho" (among other songs) as part of their unsuccessful 1962 audition for the label, with Paul McCartney on vocals.

Bonus track: Colorado '88 (Jemp) is Phish from the vaults, three discs' worth culled from shows recorded in Telluride bars in the summer of 1988. The collection, from tapes rarely traded by fans, includes two significant cover songs -- Herbie Hancock's jazz landmark "Maiden Voyage" and Traffic's "Light Up Or Leave Me Alone." Updated by Phish to the fusioneer heyday that ensued its release by Hancock, "Maiden Voyage" displays some rough charm, and shows the breadth of the band's improvisational palette even early on. The Traffic is not a great vocal performance, but does capture some of the original's hippie insouciance. Colorado '88 also features notes and photos from the band's travels. The set is hardly vital; it works best as a document of the promising time back in the day before Phish began selling out airforce bases.

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