Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell – Sing Into My Mouth

Released: 7/17 via Brown Records

4/7 stars

Covers can be a mixed bag. At its best, a cover can extract something fresh and vital from its source material, making the song new again. Some of the best cover versions barely sound like the original at all. When Jimi Hendrix covered “All Along the Watchtower”, he ditched the dustiness of Dylan’s original in favor of some of the most dramatic guitar playing of his career. Jeff Buckley disposed of the schmaltziness of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, turning it into the singular statement of his career, a towering moment that blends secularity and spirituality into one spine-tingling performance.

At its worst, a cover doesn’t insult its source material. A “bad” cover isn’t poorly performed or conceived. Some of the worst covers are the ones that fail to do anything other than mimic the original. It’s boring and uninspiring. Would the Byrds’ version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” been as ubiquitous had they merely copied Dylan’s version?

But, like anything in music, those rules don’t stand hard and fast. If you two voices as beautiful as Sam Beam’s and Ben Bridwell’s, sometimes it doesn’t matter if you take the source material to new and exciting places. And on Sing Into My Mouth, the Iron & Wine and Band of Horses frontmen don’t inject much originality into most of these songs. What they do, however, is show extreme reverence to these songs, and deference to their definitive, original recordings.

The tracks selected for this album are a smorgasbord of singers and songwriters from the last 50 years. This isn’t a who’s-who of classic songs, and frankly this album is all the better for it. Instead of covering Rod Stewart, Bridwell decides to take on a terrific track from Stewart’s Faces bandmate Ronnie Lane, the lightly rollicking “Done This One Before”. The cover is extraordinarily faithful to the original, swapping Lane’s harmonica solo for a jaunty electric piano solo. On the next track, Beam ambles his way through Bonnie Raitt’s “Anyday Woman”. Bridwell’s lead on “You Know More Than I Know” isn’t much different from John Cale’s original; there’s just some more pedal steel guitar on this one. And Beam’s cover of the Marshall Tucker Band’s short ditty “Ab’s Song” is a note-for-note replication of the original.

The tracks that do deviate from their source material largely differ from subtraction. Bridwell’s beautiful take on the Spiritualized track “Straight and Narrow” retains the soul-seeking affect of the original; Bridwell’s plaintive tenor is almost a dead ringer for Spiritualized singer Jason Pierce. But here the duo drop the orchestration that adorns the back half of the original, instead letting their harmonies and pedal steel guitar shine. Beam’s turn on Sade’s “Bullet Proof Soul” is one of the more surprising moments on an album not particularly heavy on them. Here, the moody sax lines and drum machines are replaced with moody slide guitar lines and faraway harmonies from Beam and Bridwell. The duo’s ability to retain the tension and drama of the original is why this track works so well.

But despite the tendency to remain faithful, the duo still finds opportunities to take some chances. Their spacey, ethereal take on J.J. Cale’s classic, rambling “Magnolia” is a welcome diversion from the source material. Beam’s smoky voice echoes like it’s coming from some far-off place, injecting freshness into the original’s laid-back mellow. And Bridwell’s expansive take on Peter La Farge’s eerie dirge “Coyote” is a tremendous example of retaining the spirit of the original while taking it to bold new places. Where La Farge was howling from the top of some lonely hill in the depths of the woods, Bridwell’s calling out from some distant galactic outpost. It’s an album highlight.

But perhaps the song most emblematic of this album’s spirit is the song it derives its title from. The duo’s spellbinding version of the Talking Heads’ “This Must The Place” almost does the album a disservice by being its first track: where do you go from there? Aside from the lyrics, Beam and Bridwell’s version is almost unrecognizable from David Byrne and co.’s weird and wonderful 1982 masterstroke. The two singers gel perfectly here, with Bridwell’s reedy tenor gliding perfectly atop Beam’s dulcet voice. When they hit their falsettos at the end of the song, it amounts to the most sublime point anywhere on the album. It singlehandedly justifies Sing Into My Mouth’s existence.

There are certainly some clunkers on this album. The version of David Gilmour’s “No Way Out of Here” drags on, and the deep soul of Them Two’s “Am I A Good Man” is completely absent here, but mostly the duo succeeds in crafting a cover’s album that befits its album artwork’s spirit. This is just a couple of extremely talented singer-songwriters with a lot of reverence for their surprisingly wide-ranging influences. This album isn’t a bid for ubiquity a la Johnny Cash’s famous cover of “Hurt”, or even Iron & Wine’s hushed take on “Such Great Heights”. Which is why, despite the duo’s general risk aversion, Sing Into My Mouth amounts to such an enjoyable, if largely inconsequential, listen. It doesn’t hurt to have a couple of world-beating singers either.

Key Tracks: “This Must Be The Place”, “Magnolia”, “Straight and Narrow”, “Coyote”