Weller clears the wild wood

PAUL WELLER: STUDIO 150

VS, 13.99 ***

ONLY THE most hardline purist musicians get through their careers without dabbling in the indulgence of a cover version or two. Paul Weller - elder punk statesman, the Modfather, the world’s most taciturn politicised rock star, a man who continues to perform so Steve Winwood doesn’t have to (but does anyway) - isn’t one of those guys, so he leisurely treads where myriad middle-aged musicians have trod before and presents, with a characteristic nonchalant shrug, his album of cover versions.

Well, why not? Cover versions don’t have to be naff chartbound cash-ins, nor works of vanity or reverence. Covers can be fun, inventive and curious, and the anticipation of which way a new interpretation will fall can be half the entertainment. Really, nothing is sacred - it’s just pop music. The question is not "dare I touch this piece of sonic perfection?", but "could I get away with a glockenspiel solo in the middle eight?"

In a few weeks’ time, kd Lang will release her covers album - Canadian covers, no less. There appears to be no such specific rationale to Weller’s choice. At a guess, this is just a bunch of songs he really likes. His own music may inspire the worst sort of blokey, fanboy exclusivity - and calling an album after the studio in which you recorded it is a particularly muso move - but he does have pretty good music taste.

Essentially, he’s a soulboy, the most doggedly trainspotterish music fan you can get. But Weller is not trying to impress us with his esoteric selection of rarities. He restrains himself from delving into the lesser known corners of his record collection, choosing only one obscure old northern soul song - If I Could Only Be Sure, by Nolan Porter - which he renders as an understated rhythm’n’blues number.

If there is any guiding principle, it has been to pick a variety of work by cast-iron songwriters, from Bacharach and David to Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards. You could have laid bets on the appearance of a Gil Scott Heron track (it’s The Bottle, and it is adequately full and funky); the inclusion of Gordon Lightfoot and Tim Hardin songs was not quite so predictable.

STUDIO 150 features songs which allow Weller a groovy workout, beside songs which allow him to play the sensitive acoustic troubadour. Mostly he handles them with kid gloves, but there is thankfully no need to treat an Oasis song gently. His version of One Way Road is one of the album highlights, jazzing up the conventional rock original with a cheeky clarinet refrain and a vaudeville piano.

Elsewhere, he just about gets by with far superior material. Rose Royce’s Wishing On A Star is a beautiful song, which suits even Weller’s grizzled voice, although he misses the light touch of the original. Sister Sledge’s Thinking Of You, another neglected soul gem, does not fare quite so happily in the Wellerdrome. "You make me glad that I’m alive ... now I’m living in ecstasy," he sings, while sounding like he’s living on opiates. Lovely, airy string arrangement, though.

It’s a similar story on Close To You, which scores high for pulling off the full, shimmering Bacharach arrangement, with balmy horns and plangent guitar, while retaining a humble simplicity, but is let down by Weller’s fairly flat vocal turn. If he cannot quite muster the euphoria for these soppy classics, he is on safer ground with his own arrangement of the traditional folk tune Black Is The Colour, a song which is similar in mood (and melody) to Scarborough Fair and has echoes of his own unashamedly romantic Jam song English Rose.

WITH SOUL, funk and folk standards passably dispatched, he finishes off with a couple of heavy-duty rock growlers. Curiously, his version of Bob Dylan’s epochal All Along The Watchtower sounds more like the Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear The Reaper, although this could be a rare incidence of Weller having a laugh with the material. Mix-and-match rock riffs - what larks.

Neil Young’s Birds appears to be this season’s cover version of choice, having been whispered by Kathryn Williams on her recent Relations collection. In contrast, Weller thuds away at the piano but the song escapes with its life. As the final chord dies away, Weller is no doubt contented, the listener satisfied enough, but are we any the wiser about the songs or their interpreter? Williams laid herself bare on her cover versions; Weller just handles the material tastefully and comes off second best.