Beginning with Mark Lanegan's cover of Lead Belly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" on The Winding Sheet, his 1990 solo debut album, he's revealed himself to be a fine interpretive singer. Until now, he's only issued one previous record of covers, 1999's wonderful I'll Take Care of You. On Imitations, Lanegan offers contemporary songs, standards, and obscure numbers that, according to him, reveal the effect his parents' record collection had on him. The arrangements are unique, song to song. John Barry's "You Only Live Twice" (Nancy Sinatra) is only orchestrated by a pair of acoustic guitars; the singer's voice entering the lyric's dangerous flow becomes a hazy nocturnal dream. "Pretty Colors" (Frank Sinatra) features tremoloed electric guitars, harpsichord, vibes, percussion, and bass. They frame Lanegan's world-weary, restrained, but deftly effective emotive croon. Three songs are closely associated with Andy Williams who, as revealed in his interpretations, is a complex figure -- akin to that of Roy Orbison in David Lynch's iconography: Neil Sedaka's "Solitaire" is read through the lens of Ennio Morricone's cinematic spaghetti western scores, yet it's tempered, brought into emotional view by violin and cello framing Lanegan's declamatory voice. His delivery of Carl Belew's "Lonely Street" is taken beyond the pale of the heart's borderlands with bittersweet reverie, sorrow, and acceptance. Andrew Joslyn's multi-tracked violins add an ethereal dimension to the standard rock instrumentation. Johnny Mercer and Jacques Prevert's "Autumn Leaves" finds Billy Stover's piano leading the band, with the chart kissed by strings. Lanegan leans in and captures the otherworldliness and impossibility of the romance in the lyric -- Williams did it with so much grace that the song's tragedy was often overlooked, but Lanegan heard the soft yet crushing blow in Williams' voice, and delivers it in his own. The contemporary numbers are equally creative. "Flatlands," by Chelsea Wolfe, uses acoustic guitars, percussion, bass, and a three-piece string section. It feels earth-moving in the grain of Lanegan's instrument. Nick Cave's "Brompton Oratory," adorned with horns, gives the track a classy jazz tinge (think of a light, sophisticated Gerald Wilson chart), yet could be played by a Salvation Army band. The conviction in Lanegan's delivery is so inside the lyric, it convincingly equates the love and loss in the gospels with that of this spurned lover's grief and longing. "She's Gone" (not the Hall & Oates tune as has been reported, but a mid-'60s bluegrass waltz by Clarence White and Jan Paxton) wears its Nashville-cum-California swirl beautifully with Mark Hoyt's backing harmony vocal. On Greg Dulli's "Deepest Shade," Lanegan reveals the songwriter's Leonard Cohen worship nakedly Further, he dresses John Cale's "I'm Not the Loving Kind" in the pomp of '70s Elvis and the breezy vulnerability of Dusty Springfield simultaneously! Imitations is a fine collection that reveals the depth of the songs through the openness and considerable skill of the singer.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek