Home Music Various Artists: Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex

Various Artists: Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex

What makes a good cover song? Is it the creative liberties the covering artist takes with regard to the original song’s form and structure, bending and reshaping the formerly recognizable into something new and different, often resulting in a new song in and of itself? Or, as seems to have been the case in the 21st century, is it taking a well-known song (often uptempo) and slowing it to a lysergic crawl, imbuing each and every line with a sort of knowing, studied sadness and melancholy that, in turn, seeks to reconfigure the song’s original emotional underpinning? Or does one succeed by simply sticking to an established, familiar formula and replicating it as best as humanly possible – a strict homage?

All approaches are on display on the newly-released Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex to varying degrees of success. Peaches predictably delivers a deconstructed, electro version of “Solid Gold, Easy Action,” while Lucinda Williams employs the slow, sadness-stricken approach on “Life’s a Gas,” and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts take on “Jeepster” pretty much as it appeared on 1971’s Electric Warrior. The other 22 tracks fall generally somewhere in each of these three approaches, the artistic choice generally in keeping with the established track record of each artist in question.

For example, Nick Cave’s read of “Cosmic Dancer,” a song that, in its original form, was a rather strutting, low-key acoustic-and-strings number, is here given an appropriately Nick Cave-treatment. The song is slowed, given a rather eerie, haunting arrangement that pays just enough lip service to the original and comes off as, while certainly impactful, lacking the emotional core of Bolan’s original performance. Where before the song was art, here it has become artifice – a sort of midnight musical drag show wherein no one’s having all that much fun.

Conversely, John Cameron Mitchell’s read of “Diamond Meadows” – a sort of baroque, psychedelic chamber piece on 1970’s T. Rex renders the song a highly-affecting ballad that makes one long to hear more of his interpretations of Bolan (and other artists, for that matter). This particular rendition manages to split the difference between the two schools of thought with regard to how best to approach a cover, both slowing and reinventing the song to create something that barely resembles the original in the best way possible. Similarly, Emily Haines (Metric) takes The Slider’s “Ballrooms of Mars,” removes the slow-burn boogie shuffle of the original, adds a sort of fractured, avant garde cabaret feel and, for good measure, throws in an extended quote of Gustav Holst’s “Mars” (The Planets, Op. 32), a particularly clever and inspired choice.

At 25 tracks, Angelheaded Hipster would seem an overlong survey of a given artist’s career for a covers album. Yet Bolan was so prolific at his peak performance in the early-to-mid-‘70s that, while a number of the usual suspects are present and accounted for (both Electric Warrior and The Slider, arguably T. Rex/Bolan’s best albums, are well represented) there are more than a few B-sides and rarities that help make the collection a more-often-than-not inspired listen. And while some of these songs in their original incarnations might sound a little slight or lacking, many of these versions show that the bones of the songs were deceptively strong and ripe for reinterpretation by artists not necessarily churning out an incomprehensible amount of music at an absolutely absurd rate.

Of course, being a somewhat scattershot collection of artists and cover selections, it’s best to cherry-pick the better performances and leave some of the lesser tracks – Perry Farrell’s “Rock On” is particularly lifeless and Todd Rundgren’s “Planet Queen” sounds like Rundgren hated Bolan and has been harboring a weirdly specific resentment all these years – behind. If nothing else, Angelheaded Hipster offers an eclectic lineup of artists the chance to leave their own creative stamp on a singular, inimitable talent in Marc Bolan and, with any luck, the more inspired takes will lead listeners down further rabbit holes either with the artists in question or the original versions of the songs. Either way, Angelheaded Hipster can largely be chalked up as a win.

Summary
Being a somewhat scattershot collection of artists and cover selections, it’s best to cherry-pick the better performances and leave some of the lesser tracks behind
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