The Separate – Orchestral Variations V.01, Setanta Records ****
Orchestral cover albums? We’ve been here many times before. Yet while The Separate – Orchestral Variations V.01 follows the blueprint, its backstory makes it somewhat unique.
This is the last scheduled release from the mighty Setanta Records – home to the likes of The Divine Comedy, Richard Hawley and Edwyn Collins – as founder Keith Cullen has decided to focus his energies on writing after over two decades of running the label. As swan songs go, The Separate is impressive. Producer Rob Kirwan and string arranger Fiona Brice lay the groundwork for a multitude of guest vocalists to transform songs by acts as diverse as The Ramones, Phil Lynott, Pet Shop Boys and Pixies.
There are no completely unlistenable duds, though it’s inevitable that some will fare better than others. Paul Noonan’s presumed lifelong ambition to emulate David Byrne is realised on Once in a Lifetime, but the arrangement requires a more potent punch. Ditto for Placebo man Brian Molko’s take on West End Girls, which doesn’t hugely deviate from the original despite its lack of an electronic heartbeat.
Still, most of these covers are arranged and performed with passion and creativity. See Mark Lanegan’s transformation of The Cure’s Close to Me into a creepy lullaby, or Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchinson leading the charge on The Specials’ classic Ghost Town amid feverish violins and dark jolts of cello. Martha Wainwright’s telling of U2’s Stories for Boys adds an extra layer of dramatic urgency to the original.
The standout track is clearly Joan as Policewoman’s beautiful take on The Smiths’ This Night Has Opened My Eyes. Swapping Johnny Marr’s guitar riff for forlorn piano, it’s a stark, melancholic ballad that captures the heartache of the original succinctly and sympathetically.
“It feels like a good ‘final’ record to put out on my label,” Cullen said recently.
It is. setantarecords.com
Download tracks: Joan as Policewoman, This Night Has Opened My Eyes; Scott Hutchinson, Ghost Town; Martha Wainright, Stories for Boys