An excellent tribute album is a rare thing. A tribute album whose covers are better than the originals is rarer still. But with Loving Takes This Course: A Tribute to the Songs of Kath Bloom , we have both.
A comparison between the covers and the criminally overlooked folksinger’s originals is easily done. Chapter Music has cleverly packaged this tribute as a two-CD set, disc one featuring the sixteen cover versions and disc two Kath Bloom’s originals. For the most part, the originals are simple, straightforward folk and country songs. The arrangement veers away from sparse, traditional arrangements only on the tracks Bloom recorded in the ’80s with Loren Connors, on which his meandering, improvised guitar is unmistakable. Primarily, Bloom’s emotional vocals and intelligent, heartbreaking lyrics are what set her apart. Her pain and sorrow are palpable through her songs, her yearning and distress expressed beautifully. Yet, over the course of the second disc, this intimacy can lead to a sense of harrowing claustrophobia, which the artists on disc one deftly manage to avoid.
From album opener “Come Here” by Belgium’s Marble Sounds to the Concretes’ closing pop version of the same song, the covers are more inviting and accessible than the originals. With warmer insrumentation, varying pace and arrangement, disc one gives the listener room to breathe without trivializing the searing beauty of Bloom’s lyrics. Marble Sounds’ sad Sufjan Stevens-esque take on “Come Here” — gentle mandolins, lulling harmonies, and sci-fi sound effects — is as compelling as Bloom’s sparser original. The lovelorn resignation of lines like “There’s a wind that blows in from the north/ and it says that loving takes this course,” are just as devastating on the Concretes’ upbeat treatment of the track, as Bergsman’s voice sounds close to cracking with tears.
“I’d like to touch you/ but I’ve forgotten how” loses none of its sense of shattering helplessness on Bill Callahan’s breathtaking rendering of “The Breeze/ My Baby Cries.” Peggy Frew singing “What did I ever do/ to make you as lonely as me?” remains haunting, though considerably less hysterical than Bloom, on “Window,” as the Dirty Three’s Mick Turner opens up the song’s sound with organs and accordions, all while maintaining Connors’ loose feel. On a rich-sounding “It’s So Hard to Come Home” Marianne Dissard adds French accent, intonation and breathlessness while Joey Burns from Calexico provides the mandolins and trotting/ bubbling sound effects.
Devendra Banhart brings welcome relief from the sadness and melancholy with his fun version of “Forget About Him,” managing to sound more convincing, amidst whirling sound effects and cooing backing vocals, than Bloom in his pledge to move on. The sense of claustrophobia is further diminished with the Dodos’ airy “Biggest Light of All.” The mournful horns contribute a sense of space and a twinge of paradoxical optimism to an unsettling song possibly about impending death.
On only two tracks do the covers actually plunge further into pathos than the originals: Mark Kozelek’s version of “Finally” and Josephine Foster’s “Look at Me.” In Kozelek’s case at least, it’s not necessarily a bad thing; his haunting vocals over delicately picked guitar are stunning. The other artists, whether it’s Australia’s Laura Jean doing a wistful yet urgent “When I See You” or England’s Scout Niblett doing a raw, sensual “I Wanna Love,” bring something different that opens up each song without denying the fundamental sorrow at their core. The sixteen interpretations of Kath Bloom’s songs on disc one of this set are faithful to her song writing vision, and are a fitting tribute to one of this country’s finest living songwriters.