I'll Take Care of You
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There are some kinds of music that really work only at certain times of day or during specific activities. You've got good driving music, good drinking music, good dishwashing music. Mark Lanegan's records are of the late-night, half tanked, down-and-miserable, stare-out-the-trailer-at-the-stars variety. As singer for MIA grungers Screaming Trees, Lanegan naturally provides more power than finesse. But while it may be easy to say the grunge king has mellowed with age or rehab, Lanegan's first record in this manic-depressive style, The Winding Sheet, was released in 1991, the year before grunge became pop. Lanegan is an artist who appreciates tradition and songwriting and knows a little about interpreting others' material. His take on Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," which appeared on Sheet and which Nirvana later covered for Unplugged, was surprisingly wrenching.
While Lanegan's solo work will probably not garner the attention the Screaming Trees' stuff has, it's still great that the grunge legacy is more than the Singles soundtrack, goatees and bad attitudes. Lanegan is joined on his latest, I'll Take Care of You, by Mike Johnson (Dinosaur Jr.), Ben Shepherd (Soundgarden) and Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), among others. This time, though, Lanegan wrote none of the songs. The mood of yearning comes courtesy of Jeffrey Lee Pierce (Gun Club), Eddie Floyd/Booker T. Jones, Tim Hardin and Buck Owens and others. Yet the tone isn't much happier than any of Lanegan's other records. The song "On Jesus' Program" may be a spiritual, but when Lanegan gets ahold of it and stuffs it full of reverbed-out guitars, brushed drums and his world-weary voice, it's a plea for life. Not afterlife. And his take on "Little Sadie," a traditional ballad, is plaintive and matter-of-fact, befitting the guy-kills-girl, guy-gets-caught, guy-goes-to-jail lyrics. With nothing more than Mark Hoyt on acoustic and Johnson on electric guitar, Lanegan's honey-smoked vocals are up-front and honest, like he's telling a story that sounds better when sung.
The songs he chooses are similar. They're tales to be shared, confessionals or anecdotes, and the simplicity of the arrangements enhances their narrative effects. Because of Lanegan's delivery, the line between singer and song is blurred. Factor in that Lanegan has had his own troubles (namely heroin) and it becomes a Tales-from-the-Edge kind of record. This has been the Lanegan M.O. on all of his solo material, and there isn't much (other than the all-cover song format) to distinguish I'll Take Care of You from his previous work. Yeah, he's got one of the best male voices in rock and roll today and has a great touch, but it's just that he's not covering any new territory.
Maybe it was too challenging to cover 11 songs, but Lanegan co-opts them into his style so easily, the original authors hardly matter. And late at night, with enough liquor, it can fit the mood just right.