Duncan Sheik – Covers 80s

It’s understandable that people want to rehabilitate new-wave music. Imagine what it was like to hear “I Ran” sounding kind of cool in a gay bar, only to get home and turn on MTV at 4 a.m. to see what A Flock of Seagulls actually looked like. That disappointment was usually matched with a suspicion that other songs of the era would sound pretty neat if the singer wasn’t compelled to be a preening jackass. Unfortunately, trumping the new-wave heritage can be a real challenge. The heavy metal heroes of Atrocity tried with two albums of ’80s tunes that only reduced them to sounding like a Disney act doing a metal album.

Duncan Sheik, however, gets it right with Covers 80s. He was already fooling around with acoustic revamps of David Sylvian and Depeche Mode back in his major-label days as a crooning one-hit wonder. “Barely Breathing” even came from a debut where Sheik’s fashion sense was clearly more European gray than Seattle. His post-fame career has been impressive, but it’s nice that the Tony-winning composer still finds time to redeem his adolescence.

Sheik cheats a bit with what he’s revamping, though. “The Ghost In You” and “Life’s What You Make It” – by, respectively, Psychedelic Furs and Talk Talk – are played relatively straight as classics in their original form. Sheik also goes with a top-shelf Smiths standard for “William, It Was Really Nothing.” No extra points for figuring out Howard Jones’ sole good song, either.

Other tunes have been stripped-down and polished to unexpectedly gorgeous perfection. “Shout” was a painful stumbling block for Atrocity, but Sheik saves the Tears for Fears hit with shamelessly bold vocals balanced with a restrained musical undertow. “Gentlemen Take Polaroids” – where Sheik goes back to Sylvain’s days with Japan – becomes a novelty folk tune flaunting the wounded spirit that had suburban kids bonding with cold English angst. His take on the Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now” is another brave move where Sheik seizes back a melody that once got washed away in a stylist’s nightmare.

There aren’t any big finds or interesting obscurities here. Sheik seems to have been strictly a major-label 120 Minutes kind of kid. The rest of the album takes on the likes of The Cure, Love and Rockets, The Blue Nile, New Order, and another take on Depeche Mode. Nobody’s going to score hipster cred for seeing those bands back on the mid-sized club circuit. Sheik takes all the acts very seriously, though, and opens up the formerly niche songwriting into music for everybody – even handsome young boarding-school kids whose big childhood angst is having to settle for going to Brown instead of Harvard.

Duncan Sheik
Covers 80s