REVIEW: Lena Hall: Obsessed series
This week's release of Lena Hall Obsessed: Chris Cornell brought the conclusion of one of the most ambitious recording programs to emerge from our small corner of the music industry in recent memory: Lena Hall's yearlong series of Obsessed EPs. Each month since January, Hall has put out a four-to-six song collection of stripped down covers, with each release focused on a different band or musician drawn from Hall's favorites.
While the series launched with a six-song retrospective of numbers from Hedwig and the Angry Inch (a show for which Hall won a Tony Award as Yitzhak before embarking on a tour playing both Yitzhak as well as Hedwig at select performances), Hall kept the spotlight primarily on the world of rock. Post-January, the closet she came to covering other showtunes was the inclusion of "As The World Falls Down" and "Lazarus" in her David Bowie set. All of this is to say, Obsessed is more at home at the Troubador than Cafe Carlyle, and yes, I know Hall has previously played the Carlyle with a show (preserved as Sin & Salvation) featuring similar material.
The extent to which the material is transformed by Hall's performance has a more to do with the musician of origin than with Hall. There's no denying that Hall is a tremendously powerful singer with the attitude for rock and the pipes and technique to keep the repertoire from damaging her instrument. She's accompanied on most tracks by Justin Craig, an able guitar player, although lacking any flash on these tracks that might distinguish him in that arena. Most of the time, this is fine: her voice is the star, and that's a joy. There are times, such as in her take on Elton John's "The Bitch is Back" that her playing, while professional, begins to feel repetative and workmanlike. Of course, John's music was conceived of for piano and suffers somewhat from the instrument's exclusion. Hall's minimalist approach isn't strictly guitar-only; there's a saxophone solo on "The Bitch is Back;" a piano and bass appear on the same set's "Someone Saved My Life Tonight;" and so on.
Different cover versions of songs appeal for different reasons. I find that my favorites in Hall's set are her renditions of songs that are familiar but not my favorites. For example, if you asked me if I know "Zombie" by The Cranberries, I'd probably say no. Play me the Lena Hall cover, and I'll say "oh, that song!" followed quickly by "she does a great version of this!" Then again, according to Spotify's year-end analysis of my listening habits, David Bowie has been my 2018 obsession, and I found Hall's "Rebel Rebel" to be among the most satisfying recordings in her project. So perhaps trying to categorize my reactions to her recordings is somewhat futile.
Instead, let me list some highlights, in the hopes that you might enjoy my favorites as well:
"Midnight Radio," from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, benefits from this out-of-context performance. In the show, the song comes at the end of an exhausting night and reflects the singer's optimism and rebirth after being torn down. Here, it's a full-throated anthem, with Hall's sparse acoustic guitar-and-piano arrangement allowing the musicality of the composition to shine through.
"Sober," a P!nk song, gives us a folkier Hall, transforming the pop song into the kind of song you might hear at the end of the night in a coffee house. Hall's voice and guitar equally channel the song's pain; her storytelling instincts as an actress provide an arc to the number that leave you worrying about what comes next for the singer once the song ends.
"Creep," by Radiohead, a rare piano-vocal track in the Obsessed series, modulates between a near-lullaby feel and a priomordial wail that perfectly captures the song's conflicting emotions of sadness and self-blame. I daresay that after hearing Hall's version, I never need to hear a man sing this song again.
With "Breed," an uptempo Nirvana song, Hall manages to give us a full-on rocker while also transforming the song's original harsh snares and distortion with a brushes and tambourine aesthetic that I promise works better than you're imagining simply by putting Hall's melodic growl front and center.
Sure, there were some songs that didn't resonate with me, and listening to all 12 sets back to back uncovers a certain sameness of approach that makes me hope there will be a surprise "greatest hits" compilation in which a producer mixes up the highlights together in a satisfying order to hear them anew. (Yes, I could make a playlist, but I want someone else to do the heavy lifting of sequencing the songs for me. Call me old fashioned.)
Still, this yearlong glimpse into the musical mind of a performer I already liked quite a bit has been a treat that makes me greedily look forward to what comes next – and hope it might be an opportunity for Hall to apply her prodigious talents to some original material, written expressly for her.
(Note: this review was edited post-publication to correct an error that initially identified Lena Hall as playing the guitar.)
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Sin & Salvation: Live at the Carlyle - 2015 Lena Hall Hedwig and the Angry Inch Elton John David Bowie Lena Hall Midnight Radio (9) Lazarus (2) Toggle Additional (4)