I have a lot of faith in Colin Meloy. The Decemberists frontman is capable of many wondrous things: writing a pop song that casually employs the word "balustrade," for one; convincingly delivering lines like "My name is Leslie Anne Levine" in tenor, for two. And, truth be told, he's written four full-length records that, altogether, contain maybe three verging-on-lackluster filler tracks (I didn't love "When the War Came," OK?). So, you'd imagine, I'd have faith in him covering one of my all-time favorite artists: Sam Cooke.
But Cooke is tricky. He's one of the most charismatic singers ever. His music embodies hope (I mean, the man alone assured his gospel-singing cohorts that God wouldn't strike you down for writing pop songs) as well as a deep, visceral humanity. Even the oft-objective Allmusic.com calls him "the most important soul singer in history." Meloy needn't be Cooke, of course, but his new tour-only EP, Colin Meloy Sings Sam Cooke, ought to at least capture his spirit. But, despite the poignant effect Meloy's voice has on his own material, its taut, controlled delivery and highbrow flourishes just don't translate to the language of Mr. Soul. Meloy's poker-faced take on five Cooke classics (including "Cupid" and "That's Where It's At")—though an enjoyable departure for Decemberists fanatics and a clear labor of love on Meloy's part—ends up feeling dry, plain and, well, pretty darn un-Sam Cookelike.
The EP is very Colin Meloy, which is exactly why it doesn't really work. While Meloy's take on Morrissey (Sings Sam Cooke is the third in a series of tour-only covers EPs) borrowed and re-envisioned the original artist's bread-and-butter (melodrama), this EP fails to convey Cooke's essence. On "Good Times," for instance, Meloy's restrained "lat-tah-dahs" don't, by a long shot, give you the impression he's set to party "all night long." Instead, they leave you with the usual image of Meloy: in leather armchair with ascot and monocle, reading a Norton Anthology of English Literature.
And Laura Gibson's backing vocals—which appear on every track—don't do much to help. Her voice is lovely as ever (and can be found to better effect on her own recent tour-only EP, Six White Horses), but it's similarly restrained. It simply mirrors Meloy's vacant-sounding renderings of Cooke's tunes. On "Bring It On Home to Me" (a ballsy move considering its recent covering by fellow Portlander and true soul man Britt Daniel), for instance, Meloy and Gibson's call-and-response "yeahs" lack passion—exactly what makes Cooke's music so inspiring. Meloy's version of "Summertime," on the other hand, at least does something original—its ethereal, echoed backing vocals and minor, creeping guitar setting a far eerier mood than you'd expect.
Don't get me wrong, I like this record: Meloy and Gibson's voices are some of today's best, and I can't help but enjoy Cooke's songs. It's a welcome novelty, and endless kudos to Gibson and Meloy for revaluing tangible music by issuing modern collector's items. I just don't think the songs of Meloy and Cooke—both great talents—are in the same wheelhouse. Still, if I hadn't already begged a publicist for a copy of Sings Sam Cooke, you could bet your ass I'd be at the merch table this Saturday, cash in hand.
SEE IT: Meloy and Gibson play Saturday, May 3, at the Wonder Ballroom. 8 pm. $20 advance, $23 day of show. All ages.