As noted in the Keith Cullen interview elsewhere on State, Orchestral Variations V.01 is the final release on Setanta Records, marking its transition from a dormant label to an extinct one. This is really it; there won’t be a V.02. The album comprises a dozen covers of classic pop or post-punk songs, arranged for chamber strings by Fiona Brice and produced by Rob Kirwan. Cullen picked the songs, paid for the album, and is putting it out in his last act as a svengali. It’s been called a vanity project, and it is, but then: isn’t all art?
The song choices, for a self-described “obscurist”, range from the relatively populist (Patrick Wolf’s ‘Old Town’, Mark Lanegan’s ‘Close to Me’, Martha Wainwright’s ‘Stories for Boys’) to the reassuringly idiosyncratic, like ‘Big Sky’ from the Kinks’ 1968 Village Green Preservation Society, or OMD’s taut, puzzling ‘Souvenir’. Ed Harcourt takes on The Ramones via the forgotten gem ‘Something To Believe In’: its lachrymose lines “I wish I was someone else / I’m confused, I’m afraid, I hate the loneliness” open the album. Harcourt does an exquisite job of laying bare the song’s crippling melancholy, not neglecting the hope: “With your love”, it goes on, “I know with all my heart I can win”. It’s a stunning performance.
As is Mark Lanegan’s take on The Cure’s classic ‘Close to Me’. Covers of hit songs are tough to get right, because each listener has a million associations with the song already; if the cover is too close a copy, the whole venture quickly becomes pointless (track three, Paul Noonan’s ‘Once in a Lifetime’, is a case in point). Lanegan, however, utterly reimagines ‘Close to Me’, de and re-constructing it as something barely recognisable. His slowed, foggy, dissonant version finds layers of depth and foreboding in the song that I doubt Robert Smith knew he put there. This is how you put your own stamp on a song, and it’s an apt expression of unrestrained but cultivated creativity befitting a label that is already much missed.