3 Out Of 5 Stars
Singer/Songwriter cum Broadway Composer Duncan Sheik first hit in 1996 as a 20-something singer songwriter. Which means that he was probably barely an adolescent when the set of songs he culled for his "Covers 80s" cd were making their way into his brain for storage. He might have even slow danced to "Hold Me Now" in high school for all I know. But as a solo artist, he held more to the realm of sensitive folkie than pepped up Durranie.
Which makes "Covers 80s" such a conundrum. In their original versions, some of these songs were lusty, dance-aggro tunes ("Love Vigilantes," "I'm Alive") or uber-angsty smart-guy pop ("Shout," "Stay" from The Blue Nile, "Gentlemen Take Polaroids" from Japan). Sheik deconstructs these entirely and redoes their instrumentations. No Rolands, no 808's, but accordions, hammer dulcimers, mandolins, and everything but a drum machine. Austerity is rule number one. Rule number two seems to have been to make sure that any source of happiness is ripped from every song. Sheik treats every song here, even the peppy ones like "Ghost In You," like preambles to a suicide note.
Granted, Sheik's own albums sometimes take on that tone ("White Limousine" in particular), yet those were his own compositions. If you're looking at the track-listing and thinking this would make for an uplifting trip down memory lane, forget it. What Sheik has done is pull these songs into the present as melancholy reminders that synth-pop often had a dark heart hidden under candy-floss. "Love Vigilantes" may be the first time you hear the story of the soldier's return for what it really is (unless you've already heard Iron and Wine's version). It's just hard for me to wrap my head completely around this album. Sheik strips away the varnish, drops the tempos, minors the keys and never, as the song "Shout" exhorts, lets it all out. On "Covers 80's," I finally began wishing really hard that he'd let loose, just once.