Stripped back accounts of great songs (by Springsteen, Gabriel, Marley, Don Henley and Dire Straits) by great players – don’t overlook this hidden-away gem.
Label: Independent (www.showofhands.co.uk)
Time: 13 tracks / 52 minutes.
If you ever wonder about the time you spend on review sites like this, then catching a release like Covers 2 should justify it. Show of Hands’ web site tells, “This recording is intended for our friends and fans only – we’ll be selling it at gigs and by mail order, but it won’t be available through the shops and it won’t be on iTunes, etc.” While the physical cover is uninspiring, the bright sounds of the covers inside will make it worth your while tracking it down.
A title like Covers 2 doesn’t leave much to the imagination and it follows on from their first set of re-interpretations from a decade ago. They are tribute albums, but the titles come partly from unplugged songs that appear at sound checks and occasionally live, and which fans want proper versions of.
I have yet to be disappointed by Show of Hands either live or on disc. Both Steve Knightley and Phil Beer are vocalists and multi-instrumentalists and their opener “You Stay Here” shows straight away why they are so popular. Knightley’s voice often aches as he sings and when he plucks his mandocello it shines notes around like a mirror ball; while Beer’s fiddle knows when to add expressive fills, when to refrain and how to solo. Near-permanent member Miranda Sykes expands the sound, either by her growling bowed bass at one end or her harmony vocals at the other.
Unplugged albums are great levellers. Shorn of lavish studio births, some classic songs sit alongside hand-picked selections from lesser-known writers and it is the quality of the material that stands out – just hear Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” sitting side-by-side with the local Cornish sea-faring song “First and Last.” As powerful writers and storytellers themselves, Show of Hands know when they hear a fine song, and this set has plenty to offer.
Stripped of its distractingly shiny coat, this version of “Boys of Summer” throws more attention on what the song is actually about. The strings still have enough of that jangle to mesmerise and Knightley’s vocal is typically emotive.
Boz Scaggs’ “King of El Paso” is tailor-made for Knightley’s atmospheric slide-work and the trio’s harmonies as he sings ominously, “There’s only one more border left for me to cross / Ain’t going to ride no more.”
Elsewhere, this stripped back account of Springsteen’s “Youngstown” shows how he may have ripped it off from Jethro Tull’s “Weathercock;” the seven-minute version of Dire Straits’ “Tunnel of Love” comes across more like an extended folk ballad; and without knowing the song – a highlight here – you could barely tell that ”Secret World” is a Peter Gabriel piece.
Credit to Show of Hands for ‘covering’ one of their own songs, a slowed down version of “Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed.” Knightley is at his best when railing against betrayal and injustice. His lyrics baiting the bankers on “AIG2” capture a mood and almost match the earlier “Roots,” his sharply observed elegy to a declining England, and new folk stories like “The Flood.”
“At every trough you stop to feed...
You’re on your yacht, we’re on our knees
through your arrogance, your ignorance and greed.”
It’s hard to find a downside. I’m thrown to picky points like sequencing – “Boys of Summer” hangs so beautifully at the end that throwing the listener straight into the punked-up country of Steve Earle’s “The Devils Right Hand” is too sharp a jolt. Otherwise it’s personal preferences: the original radio overkill of “2-4-6-8- Motorway” put it into my list of Room 101 contenders long ago, and this account needs a little more bite, but it’s not a bad track.
If you are at all inclined to check out what is arguably the best male roots duo in the UK, this will offer you plenty of fine songs for your mp3 playlists and has to be one of the safest place to start.