Red – Songs From a Room

Songs From a Room

It’s a well-known fact that musician-types aren’t really like you and me. Many of them are irrational, illogical, irresponsible, and idiosyncratic individuals. And usually what makes their art powerful is their singular ability to block out every distraction around them and pour themselves into their art completely, creating something new and relatable in their work. But before they create their greatest works, many of them will lose themselves in fixation on a particular artist. Dylan had Woody Guthrie, Oasis has the Beatles, and it has long been in the oral lore of rock that Brian Wilson was once so taken with the Ronette’s “Be My Baby” that he literally lay alone in his bedroom for weeks listening to it over 100 times a day. Apparently, Red (a.k.a. Oliver Lambin) has Leonard Cohen.
Covering Leonard Cohen’s Songs From a Room in every detail, right down to the cover art, Red takes his Leonard Cohen fixation seriously. And while he isn’t really that similar to Cohen in anything other than spirit, he is more than capable of creating interesting recreations altogether worthy of Canada’s greatest singer-songwriter (or is that Neil Young?). His voice is reminiscent of Cohen’s in as much as it seems to be of limited range and lacking considerable finesse, but probably is a little more Dylan-ish in its raspy hoarseness. As Red employs little more than an acoustic guitar and some electronic noodling, he also skillfully avoids Cohen’s penchant to allow his music to get weighed down in over-production. In fact, Red seems to enjoy casting his songs in the shadow of a considerable amount of dissonance, with tracks like “The Partisan” unfolding with somewhat annoying static tearing sounds akin to a CD imperfection and “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” featuring what sounds like piercing random tones from a hearing test. Not always so pleasant, to say the least.
Still, most of Red’s interpretations do manage to capture a good portion of the original understated majesty in Cohen’s performances. The strange electronic moans and squeaks of the classic “Bird on a Wire” shed a good deal of the drowsy stiffness of Cohen’s original and captures a somewhat Tom Waits-ish quality with a backdrop of rattle-clattle percussion. The understated slide guitar of “A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes” and the interweaving of banjo and acoustic guitar on “Tonight Will Be Fine” also approximate a good deal of Cohen’s troubadour mystique. Never out of the listener’s periphery is a healthy dose of dissonance, whether random electronic skonk or tunelessly blown sax, truly adding a new element to Cohen’s original arrangements.
All in all, Red puts forth a more than admirable effort in playing out his Leonard Cohen fascination for us all. That he approaches the songs with the necessary mix of reverence and adventurousness is never in question, even though his delivery tends to obscure many of the words, losing some of the poignancy of Cohen’s songwriting. But if the purpose of a tribute album is to take something you admire in the work of an artist you greatly respect and twist it just a little to show how you would have done it had the work been your own, then Red more than succeeds in his sonic homage.