Album review: Micah P Hinson – All Dressed up and Smelling of Strangers

It would be fair to say a new Micah P Hinson album has the power to make or break my year.  Ever since I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of Baby and the Satellite on a whim around 4 years ago, the Texan singer’s crackling voice has provided the soundtrack to my life.  Those familiar with his work will agree, this makes me a miserable bastard, but I’m strangely comfortable with that description.

The album is Hinson's 5th, recorded in his hometown of Abilene, Texas

So it was with a great deal of intrigue that I greeted the news that his latest album, his 5th studio record, was to be a 2CD covers album.  I also worried a lot, as I tend to do, as an entire album of covers is not something many artists can pull off, possibly with the notable exception of Cat Power.

My general problem with covers records is that it takes a delicate balancing act; on the one hand you need to make sure you don’t disrespect the original by simply rehashing someone else’s work, on the other you need to avoid trying too hard to make it your own for fear of ruination.

I need not have worried.  Hinson has chosen the 16 tracks as his homage to “the stunning minds of the past and present”, and has such a distinctive voice of his own that he is always going to offer something new within a cover track.  I genuinely think that were his voice not so phenomenal, there is no way he could have pulled this off.

The song selections represent a wide range of influences, and some of the braver tracks include John Denver’s This Old Guitar, Leonard Cohen’sSuzanne and, most controversially of all, Bob Dylan’s The Times Are A’Changin’.  Quite how he gets away with this I have no idea.  But he does.

Not every track is a winner – there is a limit to my praise of Hinson.  CoveringMy Way has more than a sprinkling of the old fromage to it, and I found his version of Leadbelly’s In the Pines (aka Where Did You Sleep Last Night) a little odd, but this was mainly due to the Nirvana version already being a credible cover.

Quite where such a powerful voice comes from in such a slight man, I have no idea.

Like all of Hinson’s work though, when it is good, it is staggeringly so.  Years ago I was lucky enough to find a copy of his cover of The Beach Boys’ Waiting For The Day; a version so ridiculously good I was pretty much reduced to a curled up ball of tears and snot, crumpled on the floor of my Leith residence.  There are tracks on here which aren’t far off this level.  His Kazoo influenced lo-fi version of George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps is another brave choice, but is genuinely moving.

The best song on the album, for me, comes down to either This Old Guitar, where his voice creaks and fluctuates over the vocal range like tears of his own are imminent, and Roy Orbison’s Running Scared. Here we see Hinson apply the distinctive formula of his own work to someone else’s song, with strings a plenty and drums which build to an almighty climax which is so good, he could have written it himself.

Annoyingly, Hinson is still only 28, which makes me feel like I’ve wasted much of my life.  Old beyond his years in both voice and musical taste, it staggers me that he is not a household name.  On our Fresh Air radio show, Dylan once commented that he could “do no wrong”. “Well, apart from the time in Jail for drug dealing”, was my response. “Oh yeah, apart from that”, came a sheepish voice.

Micah P Hinson is a fascinating character whose contribution to music, in just 6 years as a recording artist, has been immense.  I certainly don’t have his talent, but perhaps telling everyone I meet about his work may be my useful contribution to this crazy, tragic world of ours.

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