Tamara Wellons - Life Is (2009)

Tamara Wellons
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A cover song can tell you a lot about an artist. You learn something from both the songs that the artist chooses  and from the arrangements they use. For example, the fact that Luther Vandross's remake of "A House is Not a Home" was so different vocally and musically than the 1964 version of the song that made famous by Dionne Warwick and Burt Barcharch told us something about Vandross. The stripped down musical arrangement, sounding like Vandross was singing with a jazz rhythm section, was 180 degrees from Bacharach's string-filled arrangement. That arrangement gave Vandross room for his trademark vocal flourishes, which included scatting and other forms of improvisation. In doing so, the late soul singer paid tribute to one of his musical heroes - Warwick - while making a cover version that was totally distinct from the original.  The creation worked beyond Vandross's wildest dreams.
He probably didn't think that his version of "A House is Not a Home" would be part of the soundtrack for an entire generation, but that is what happened.

It's too early to tell if Tamara Wellons' version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" will become as memorable as the version Kurt Kobain performed with the grunge band Nirvana. For one thing, Wellons has a lot of company - this song has been recorded by acts as diverse as Paul Anka, the Vitamin String Quartet and Patti Smith. However, this cover tune featured on Wellons' new album Life Is is arguably more distinctive than any of those other versions.

Wellons certainly put some thought into the song.  Her soul-jazz version is definitely on the other side of the decibel spectrum from Nirvana's 1991 classic. Wellons version features her jazzy vocals and the kind of harmony from backup singers that sets this cover apart from the original. Wellons' version also includes a keyboard solo that sounds like something you might have heard on one of Norman Connors' classic 1970s records. Considering Wellons' history, this should not be surprising. She did hip-hop soul version of "Fly Me To the Moon" on an earlier recording.

However, "Teen Spirit" serves as the good setup for the rest of Life Is. The record features sweeping Latin tinged songs like "Your Face," pulsating disco/electronica influenced dance songs like "Oh Well" and the tight, neo-soul jam "Time's Ticking." One minute, Wellons is encouraging the listener to let go of dysfunction and embrace self-love on the anthem "Let Go."  Then Wellons flips 180 degrees on the track "Caught Up," a bass heavy funky number in which she offers to immerse herself in the essence of the object of her desire. Listeners who like harmony and the interplay between lead singers and the backup singers will enjoy the song "Love You."

The remake marks Wellons as a creative and conscientious artist - a trait that is backed up by the balance of Life Is. Highly Recommended.

Howard Dukes

 
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