Rarely are covers albums treated with the same respect as an artist’s original work. It seems that an entire record comprised of songs by artists that are reinterpreted and performed by another artist is seen as somewhat of a novelty that is not to be held with the same weight against the artist’s original material. It may be the case that artists often choose to produce covers albums in-between two original studio releases as a means of providing their fanbase with something to satisfy them until the new material comes out, or just as a small detour for a bit of fun. Nonetheless, there are artists who have released significant covers albums, from Rage Against the Machine to Nick Cave to Xiu Xiu, but it still seems that covers albums seldom leave an impressionable mark on an artist’s fanbase. Despite this, Chris A. Cummings, known by his musical pseudonym of Marker Starling, has produced a covers album that stands out as being a rather strong addition to his discography, and for several reasons. A striking aspect of I’m Willing is the extent to which Cummings has stripped back his sound compared to his last studio efforts, using much more limited choices for instrumentation. What’s more, this new release was recorded in a rather short period of time and it shows, not in that it sounds rushed or unfinished, rather there is somewhat of a rawness to it that is brought out by some stirring performances. Another distinguishing feature of this covers album is the choice of songs that are covered on it. Cummings opts for a smattering of compositions by some notable names, like John Cale, Classics IV and Caetona Veloso, but a significant number of these covers are of far more obscure pieces, many of which are rooted in a jazz idiom. The result is a covers album that stands out in this musician’s discography for reasons other than it simply being a covers album. As someone who has not been massively won over by Cummings’ work in the past, I’m Willing makes a compelling case for the songwriter’s ability and has left me wanting to revisit and reevaluate some of his previous work.
The opening cover of Classics IV’s hit 1968 song Stormy takes a notably slower pace than the original, which seems slightly more fitting given the lyrical content, despite the fact that it feels rather odd at first. The instrumentation is stripped back, with Cummings’ vocals being only accompanied by a simple drum machine loop, one piano maintaining the song’s chord sequence and another piano which provides some embellishments and melodies over the top, with this instrumental arrangement showing up on nearly every track on the album. Cummings’ vocal performance is also more subdued, but not necessarily in a fashion that makes it sound weak, as it instead feels tasteful and fitting given the minimal instrumentation. The overall sound of this cut is smooth and satisfying, but it doesn’t stand out as one of the stronger cuts on the record, partially because the listener can’t help but compare it to the original, which retains an undeniable blue-eyed soul charm that this version does not reproduce. Of course, Cummings should be given credit simply for daring to cover such a classic song and making it his own, which he does indeed do, although the quality of his results are up for debate.
Perfect Day, a cover of the Bobby Cole song from his 1966 album A Point of View, is one of the more interesting choices of songs to cover based on the obscurity of the piece. As is to be expected by this point, Cummings’ version is far more restricted in terms of instrumental liberties, but the songwriter also chooses to simplify the main piano part considerably, omitting the licks included between the main chords that are included in Cole’s original version. This audacious decision pays off to relative success and, at the very least, seems to totally reinvent the composition, making it feel far from a jazz piece and more like a minimalist baroque pop tune. Moreover, Cummings’ wispy vocals fit perfectly over the restricted timbre, and pair nicely with the female vocals that enter the mix later on in the track, which stay rather true to those in the original. Cummings’ bolder approach to this cover is the kind of thing I want to hear from a covers album featuring such an interesting array of song choices, and the success to which the singer spins the song to sound so different goes over nicely.
John Cale’s Amsterdam, from his debut solo album Vintage Violence, has a relatively dark vibe to it and is already stripped back in it featuring just Cale singing accompanied only by two acoustic guitars and some occasional backing vocals, so I was curious as to what Cummings’ approach to covering this piece would be. Despite the acoustic guitar being swapped for a piano, his cover feels rather close to Cale’s original version, but still his soft vocal performance results in this version lacking the dark quality of the original, instead retaining the soothing piano ballad tinge that appears on many of the covers on I’m Willing. The final track on this album, The Smiling Hour, also stays rather close to the original version in many regards, whilst still having Cummings’ own unique spin on it. This song is actually a cover of a cover, with Cummings covering 80s Manchester acid jazz band Kalima’s English reimagination of Brazilian musician Ivan Lins’ Abre Alas. Despite Kalima being a full-band and Cummings’ version of the song still featuring his bare-bones instrumentation, the cover stays rather true to the original. This was most likely the artist’s intention, as Cummings even employs a smooth bass guitar just like the one featured in Kalima’s version. Even still, the usual gentle vocal performances and slightly slowed down tempo give this cover a similar feeling to the other covers on I’m Willing.
It must be said that, whilst this album is perfectly enjoyable and features some lovely, smooth songs, the tracks are certainly a much of a muchness, hence why my descriptions of Cummings’ reimaginations of the original cuts have been rather similar. The formula is a perfectly nice one, and each track features a lovely vibe that is certainly satisfying, but there is little deviation from said formula, leaving the album feeling somewhat monotonous and perhaps also leaving it without much replay value. In fact, with regards to the latter, I have become notably more mixed about this record following numerous listens than I was after my first. Then again, the runtime of barely over half an hour means that I’m Willing most definitely doesn’t overstay its welcome, which may result in other people retaining their enjoyment of the album even after many listens.
Overall, although I have my serious reservations regarding this album’s lack of variation, I nonetheless admire the twist that Cummings puts on these songs, and the selection of pieces to cover is admirable in and of itself. For a covers album, it still stands out amongst Cummings’ work, although for very different reasons than one of his studio albums consisting of original material. I’m left curious as to what a Marker Starling fan would make of this project, given that the elaborate instrumental arrangements that have appeared on Cummings’ previous work are completely scrapped. Whilst I see many fans potentially being quick to rule this record as filler until Cummings’ next release, I still see others giving this album a chance to sway them with its subtle but satisfying charm.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10