Home recorded, folk-tinged, somewhat sullen but with equal parts warmth and optimism, South London’s Adem Illhan lives a Nick Drake-ian life in a Brian Eno world. Having paid his dues with the post-rock band Fridge with Keiren Hebden (Four Tet) at the beginning of the decade, he has since picked a less electronic, more acoustic path, recording two highly regarded albums under his own name.
For his third release, Adem has gone the way of the cover album, assembling a selection of influential artists and songs from the early 90s with the likes of Smashing Pumpkins and The Breeders, finishing up a decade later with a track from Low’s standout album from 2001, The Things We Lost in the Fire.
For some reason, cover albums are appearing with increasing regularity these days. Often seen as superfluous releases, they merely mark time for the artist and frustrate the fan, often lend weight to the argument that the best songs have already been written. In the 60’s, bands built their career on playing someone else’s songs until finding their own voice. Forty years on, times have changed considerably, and to record an album of other people’s songs is an eyebrow-raising move. Is it an attempt to widen your audience? To disguise a writers block? Or is it no more an honest gesture of putting forth a mixtape of favourite songs, as recorded by you. If your listener likes you, it isn’t too great a step to presume they’ll like what you like, unless you’re trying to fake everyone out and aspire to be cooler than the people who buy your records.
In this instance, Adem isn’t cool. I’m about as cool as he is, and if you’re reading this, you’re probably about as cool as the both of us. In fact, if you grew up listening to music in the 90s (highly informative years for some of us), chances are you’re going to be familiar with a large portion of artists here, if not the actual songs themselves. Musicians are expected to have a good ear for a song, and Adem’s choices, which are wide and disparate enough to give the impression of variety, come together under his lone umbrella without much coaxing or manipulation. Thus Canada’s Bedhead rub shoulders with Dry-era PJ Harvey and Belgium’s’ dEUS sits comfortably next to the Aphex Twin.
Takes thankfully doesn’t try and rewrite history. Adem’s arrangements are for the most part kept simple and faithful to the original song, though in the instance of Aphex Twin’s “To Cure A Weakling Child + Boy/Girl Song” he combines the vocals from one onto the music of the other, creating a wholly listenable tune. Other songs are built layer by layer, an acoustic guitar, a double bass, a xylophone, a banjo, and so on, take after take (to give perhaps another spin on the title) until done. It’s slightly odd to hear a man singing PJ Harvey’s “Oh My Lover”, a song about a woman having to share her lover with another woman, but better this than “Dress” or “Sheela Na Gig”. His softly strummed take on Pinback’s “Loro”, a song which had up until this point passed under my radar, has achieved what all good cover albums should, sending me to out discover the original.
It’s a brave move to cover a band who has fallen as much out of favour as the Smashing Pumpkins, but you’ll have to credit Adem for not sweeping such influences under the rug, with the glistening Gish-era b-side “Starla”. A lone acoustic guitar winds its way around Tortoise’s “Gamera”, showing of Adem’s six-string prowess, rattling off little scales that appear solely as a weak interlude moment (or maybe that’s because I never got Tortoise…). Other nineties favourites, Bjork and the Breeders, are given due care, but the beauty of the original over the cover is sometimes harder to forget as you begin to notice the absence of familiar voices (more so on “Starla”, as Billy Corgan, Adem is not).
A wasted and forgotten gesture as these sometimes can be, Adem has managed to make Takes an exquisite and re-listenable album, full of forgotten tunes that deserve to be remembered and rediscovered. His talent is obviously understated on such a project, but his taste in music and dedication in delivery is hard to fault.