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On Your Sleeve

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Album Review

Covers albums are always — always — tricky propositions. They've become de rigueur for artists who've been knocking around a while, either as a stopgap, for some press attention, or as a substitute for having new ideas. Usually an artist will make a crucial aesthetic mistake in cutting one of these. While it might lie with either being too liberal with the material, it's far more often either being too conservative with it or, worse, being too ambitious by not being up to the challenge of interpreting a great song. The only really valid criterion for making a covers record these days is this: can you bring something really new to the material you've chosen to record? Songwriter Jesse Malin answers the question with a resounding "yes" on his own covers set, On Your Sleeve. Coming off a very successful album in 2007 with Glitter in the Gutter, cutting a set of other people's songs is a risky move, but this was well worth the effort. The formula, if there is such a thing, is simple: Malin cut songs as a rock fan first. These tracks all hold a special place in Malin's rock & roll pantheon, and he sought to bring to them a fan's heart and a songwriter's skill. He employs his road band in the studio, augmented with friends who don't need sticker recognition on the front cover. In other words, it's the music that counts. The range is breathtaking. The set opens with a shimmering, minor-key country-ish version of the Bad Brains' classic "Leaving Babylon," with ringing hollow-body guitars — it's a complete melodic reinvention of the song in Malin's own image as a singer and writer. Then there's a skiffle reading of Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" and a version of the Rolling Stones' "Sway" that evokes latter-day Roxy Music, Suicide, and Jagger and Richards all at the same time. And this is only the first three cuts.

Other highlights include a U2-esque guitar workout on the Lords of the New Church's "Russian Roulette," a less campy and droll version of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," and a tender but rocking read of Neil Young's "Looking for a Love." There are some compelling surprises on the set as well, including a reverent and deeply moving version of Tim Hardin's "Lady from Baltimore" and a barfly with a smile's nocturnal take on Elton John's "Harmony." Add to these a modern yet taut version of Jim Croce's "Operator" and a drum machine and distorted guitar-driven "Hungry Heart" (yes, the Bruce Springsteen hit). Of course, Malin's great antihero and muse Johnny Thunders has to be here, and he is in a brief but ghostly arrangement of "It's Not Enough." There is an overly sentimental version of Shane MacGowan's "Fairytale of New York," with Bree Sharp in duet. The set closes with the late Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talking," in a version that is as much a tribute to Harry Nilsson (who scored big with it) as the single from the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack. Malin is so obviously enthralled with this material that he's literally given it everything he has — which, in his case, is plenty — and that translates to the listener in spades. Whether or not you can get with Malin's other records is immaterial; this one should be embraced by anyone who loves rock & roll.

Biography

Born: 26 January 1968 in Queens, NY

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

Jesse Malin is a songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist who has more than one musical personality, having made a name as a thoughtful and introspective singer/songwriter in his solo career as well as playing raucous, over the top rock & roll with the band D Generation, though...
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On Your Sleeve, Jesse Malin
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