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POP MUSIC | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Judge 'em by their covers

Poison and Raul Malo step outside their comfort zones playing others' tunes -- and find themselves better for it.

July 15, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

BRET MICHAELS makes a tiny vocal gesture in Poison's new version of the Cars classic "Just What I Needed" that says a lot about pop-metal, the style he helped invent. The song is about the strange pleasure of having a lover walk all over you; Cars mastermind Ric Ocasek sang it with an eyebrow perplexedly arched. But with guitarist C.C. DeVille's proletarian hot-dogging replacing the chilliness of Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes, Poison makes the song dirty, not distanced. Michaels digs in, teeth bared.

His little innovation comes after the lyric, "It doesn't matter where you've been, as long as it was deep." A breathy "yeah!" comes next; Ocasek used that aside to inject some poignancy into the scenario. His moan was tender, slightly sad. But Michaels, one of rock's better grunters, opts for weathered desire. New wave wimp Ocasek was a possibly willing victim; metal-stud Michaels is a skilled competitor in a game between consenting adults. Brushing aside artiness in favor of liberationist exuberance, Poison and its pop-metal brethren found a way to tread the same ground as new wave without ever seeming serious.

Raul Malo, the former leader of country sophisticates the Mavericks, makes a similar vocal tweak in his new reading of Buck Owens' "Crying Time." The song's been recorded over the years by artists from Brenda Lee to LeAnn Rimes, but Malo's version honors a particular predecessor: Ray Charles, who had a Top 10 pop hit with it in 1966.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 18, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Cars song: A Critic's Notebook in Sunday's Calendar section said that Ric Ocasek sang the Cars' 1978 song "Just What I Needed." Benjamin Orr was the lead singer.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 22, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Cars song: A Critic's Notebook in the July 15 Calendar section said that Ric Ocasek sang the Cars' 1978 song "Just What I Needed." Benjamin Orr was the lead singer.

The way Malo sings the phrase "I can tell by the way you hold me, darling," seals the connection: His voice ascends mid-sentence, going for the blue, time-stretching ease Charles brought to the song. Approaching "Crying Time" this way, Malo stresses country's intimate ties to rhythm and blues, and pays witness to its sometimes undervalued urbanity.

It may seem strange to contemplate a pop-metal band and a country-based crooner in the same breath. Malo is a critic's favorite with a loyal fan base; Michaels and crew are once-derided, now grudgingly beloved hit makers. Yet with the new all-covers albums that feature these songs -- "Poison'd!" (out last month) and Malo's "After Hours" (dropping this week) -- both acts amiably make the case for thinking more expansively about the genres they represent.

Malo's is the more graceful effort. His second retro-minded interpretive collection, "After Hours" isn't merely a chance to don a tux and show off those timeless pipes. The Miami-born Malo, who's explored his Cuban heritage on previous solo outings, delves into a different past here -- the countrypolitan sound, created in the 1950s and 1960s by producers and artists seeking to leave the honky tonk for the mainstream charts.

"After Hours" doesn't stick to the countrypolitan canon. The album features two Hank Williams songs, one redone Elvis-style, and misses out by not touching on the legacy of Charlie Rich. But whether he's singing a chestnut or taking a chance by throwing some Dwight Yoakam into the mix, Malo celebrates the maturity, eclecticism and refinement that characterized country's mid-century encounter with pop.

The best tracks on "After Hours" revisit songs embraced by artists who would probably never have shared a tour bus. Roger Miller's "Husbands and Wives" was a hit for both Neil Diamond and Brooks & Dunn; Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" worked for Ray Price and Al Green. Malo and co-producers Evan York and Jay Weaver examine the inner workings of these songs: a sleepy clarinet mirrors the relaxed melody of Jim Reeves' "Welcome to My World"; Malo's Wes Montgomery-style guitar and Robert Chevrier's ambling piano find the wry edge in lonesome Hank Williams on "Take These Chains From My Heart."

What's completely absent on "After Hours" is Southern or rural shtick. Malo's renditions make an argument for country as part of the larger world, telling stories that aren't limited by geography or race. Southern rock may be the nostalgic flavor of choice for many country stars, and grass-roots "Americana" artists tend to fixate on rustic sources like the Appalachian songbook. But "After Hours" offers a reminder that country music can be ecumenical, worldly and well-traveled -- in other words, cosmopolitan.

Was and not Was

POISON'S new collection is sloppier, but it likewise opens up the frame for pop metal. Covers albums are a hard-rock mainstay; "Poison'd!" is part of a line also occupied by Guns N' Roses, Warrant, L.A. Guns, Def Leppard and Tesla. What's a little different about "Poison'd!" is this band's shameless association with artists and genres most heavy-metal warriors would rather forget.

"Poison'd!" has its lazy side; five tracks are from previous releases. The new material, produced by Don Was, stands out, crackling like Pop Rocks. Remakes of Tom Petty's "I Need to Know" and "What I Like About You" by the Romantics sound like the kind of fun a veteran band has when it's just playing around, only brighter and tighter, thanks to Was' work.

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