Editor's Rating

On this interim quintet of covers, Chris Stewart turns his musical chops Robert Palmer, The Field Mice and Grouper, among others - it's audacious and fun

7.9
SACRED BONES

THE cover version. It’s a weird strand in music, really; an appreciation, a deconstruction, an act of utter iconoclasm. But don’t you love one; don’t they just appeal? 

Think of covers that have been more successful than the original. Think the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee”, made a global soul hit by The Four Tops; barely anyone knows the baroque psych beauty of the original (go and help change this, today).

Off the top of my head, and with no particular appreciation nor favour, think goth cover versions. Bauhaus’ take on “Ziggy Stardust”; Siouxsie & The Banshees’ “Dear Prudence”; The Sisters of Mercy taking a Hot Chocolate song and turning it into the darkest doom dirge.

There’s St Etienne, cooking Neil Young’s frail ballad “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” into the coolest indie-dancefloor crossover dub groove, on which the DJ eases a spliff from his lyrical lips.

My goodness, and how well did Johnny Cash reach a critical denouement in his final years, with the American Recordings series; with Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”?

Joining in this most fascinating of strands, of rebuilding, of homage, is Anglophile American indie-synthpopper Chris Stewart who, as Black Marble, is part of the Sacred Bones stable. He is releasing a five-song EP, I Must Be Living Twice, for the label on August 14th. It’s available to pre-order on download and both pink and red vinyl here and here; but hurry now.

Let’s talk covers with Chris. For Black Marble, the cover version was something that came from the live sphere, as he recounts: “Most musicians are fans first and covers are a way for bands to show this. About three years ago we started playing cover songs on stage, and a couple of unforeseen things started happening. 

“First off, people would ask me – not knowing it was a cover – when the new songs they heard were coming out. Sadly, I’d have to tell them that I didn’t write the song. 

“The other thing that would sometimes happen is people would come up to me who already knew the songs I was playing. These people were stoked to hear an old favourite worked into our set, but again they would often wonder if they could ever hear them outside of the live setting. After a while it became obvious to record the covers we’d been playing. 

“Also, we’ve played a lot of shows in the past three years. We crossed the US several times and met a lot of great people and this covers EP is a cool way for us to remember that time as well.”

Five tracks, then. What have we got? 

It kicks off, audaciously, with Robert Palmer’s FM radio-insistent, Renault-selling, 1980 single “Johnny and Mary” and pulls out the synthwave song it always secretly wanted to be, with a slinky, gently wah-wahed guitar. You find yourself finger-poppin’ just a little and reassessing Robert’s place in your musical pantheon. 

Bit of a tune, actually …

Lives of Angels’ minimalist 1986 number “The Golden Age” comes out vying for 80s’ synthpop legend status. The take on Wire’s “In Manchester” is pretty straight, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that; Chris reveals in his handling of the tune just how much of a fan of music he is, like we all are.

The Field Mice’s “Emma House” is a total indiepop icon. The 7” goes for eye-watering amounts, should you find one; If anything, oddly, Black Marble’s take is somehow more faithful to a certain four-track, lofi absolute sweetness … than the original. No mean feat. Cute bleeps garnish here and there, but you can tell they’re playing absolutely inside the heart and soul of this song. 

And to round things off, he’s brave enough to tackle the ethereal fragility of Grouper’s “Poison Tree” … and somehow invites the shy waif of a song into his world, makes it his own. It takes on a more metronomic feel, with Chris’s voice pushed back. It becomes a track that could’ve been on Bauhaus’ The Sky’s Gone Out.

Is it a curate’s egg of an EP? Maybe, yes. That breadth of choices is audacious. You have to warm to Chris Stewart though. You’d have a great music conversation with him over a couple of jars. He’s a proper fan. Shall we just spin “Johnny and Mary” again? …