Cameron Dezen Hammon, Words Don’t Bleed

Cameron Dezen Hammon, <i>Words Don't Bleed</i>

Sometimes the process is as cool as the product. (Well, almost as cool, anyway.) That’s definitely how I’m feeling about singer/songwriter and sometime The Rebecca West frontwoman Cameron Dezen Hammon’s latest, the labor-of-love covers comp Words Don’t Bleed, which she was able to crowdfund last year on PledgeMusic.

Hammon started out with only two rules for the songs she would cover on Words: the songs had be by guys (“dudes,” in her words), and they had to’ve been originally recorded in the ’80s or ’90s. She took requests from people on PledgeMusic, demo-ed early takes of the tracks and showed them off, discarding some and keeping others, and generally pulling backers of the project along with her through the process of creating the album, damn near from start to finish.

And yeah, it was fascinating, not to mention kind of genius. With the PledgeMusic project, Hammon pulled us into her world, making the whole thing intensely personal and making backers (me included) feel a little bit like voyeurs getting a glimpse of her internal life. (As an added bonus, the whole project benefits the Lupus Foundation of America, because PledgeMusic lets you set it up that way.)

I’ve backed a few album projects like this in recent years, some successful and some not, and while it’s always neat to get a copy of the album or whatever other perk I decided on, usually it’s a black box where money goes in and an album comes out. With Words Don’t Bleed, though, we got to see the early takes of different songs, got to hear the rationale behind stuff she threw out of the bucket, and got to watch as the finished album took shape. Because of all that, it felt a lot more like I and the other folks who contributed to the project actually participated in bringing it to fruition. That’s a pretty neat feeling.

The flipside of my initial thesis up above, too, is that the product itself is just as impressive, and yes, it most certainly is. Hammon has taken these ten songs, ten songs that speak to her from her younger days (for the most part), and breathed new and different life into them. There’s a languid, ethereal feel to the proceedings, an unhurried-ness that makes things float along rather than blaze — this isn’t a “rock” record, by any means, so keep that in mind.

That’s not to say it’s not powerful, mind you. Hammon herself has one of the most amazing, most pure voices I’ve ever heard, and here she uses it awesomely well, whether she’s playing things sultry and slinky as on the club-ish “A Night Like This” — probably the most overtly ’80s track on Words, by the way — or “Father Figure,” or soaring and pained, as on “The Boys of Summer” or “True Faith”. Musically, I find myself coming back to comparisons to White Sea, especially given the melding of electronics and real instrumentation, but even there this album is its own beast, special and unique.

Opener “Father Figure” (yes, that “Father Figure,” and trust me, you’re going to do that with a lot of these songs) is a good example, electronic and watery-sounding with distant, Tori Amos-esque vocals and vaguely Middle East-tinged melodies; it’s less of a dance-pop ballad than George Michael’s original, with added rock guitars and a White Sea-ish vibe. The Tori Amos thing gets me particularly strongly on this one, though, and looking at it as a whole, Words reminds me in general of Amos’ own covers comp, 2001’s Strange Little Girls — like this one, that album took songs written by men and reworked them from a woman’s point of view.

What’s interesting about this album is that the songs fall into two categories, for me — the first are songs I’ve honestly never heard before (or at least don’t remember), while the latter are ones I remember dearly from my childhood and catch myself smiling about when they come on the radio. The cover of “Suedehead” lands squarely in the first category.

See, my wife is the Smiths/Morrissey fan, not me; I’ve just never really gotten Morrissey in general, somehow, despite repeated attempts. Here, though, I find myself truly, deeply enjoying the song just as a song on its own merits, and not as “oh, yeah — this is that song I used to listen to in the ’80s.” The guitars and keys, in particular, are what make me happy, all triumphant and gorgeous and retro-sounding, dancing one another up towards the skies.

As for an example in the second category, there’s “The Boys of Summer,” which is delicate and yearning in Hammon’s hands, a far, far leap from the trundling, post-’70s road-pop of the original. Listening now, I find myself actually understanding the words a whole lot better than I ever did as a kid; heck, back then I remember the biggest mystery to me was what a “Deadhead sticker” was (no, my parents were not hippies). It’s poignant and painful, a crumbling end to a love affair that the narrator, at least, doesn’t want to see end.

Then there’s the dark and murky rendition of “Addicted to Love,” with rumbling, heavily distorted but far-off guitars and a serious undercurrent of menace that was buried far more deeply in the original but which makes a whole heck of a lot of sense when you consider the song’s actual meaning. When the beat comes in, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re listening to some new chillwave artist, or maybe the new Avicii track or something.

“True Faith” kind of rides the line between the two, because while I didn’t recognize it by name, as soon as the chorus came in I realize that yeah, I did know the song; I just never had any clue what it was called. I had friends in high school who were New Order fans, but I was mostly a metalhead at the time, so it wasn’t really something I paid much attention to when they put their cassettes on the car stereo. Looking back, though, I remember really liking this song and being surprised by the fact.

I think I liked how bleak and doom-filled it seemed to be, not nearly as cheeseball lyrically as the bouncy synths seemed to suggest. With this version, though, Hammon strips away the cheeseball and makes it far more grim than the original while never losing that melodic sweetness that makes it all work so well.

“Alive and Kicking” is one for the first pile, a Simple Minds song I’ve never heard before now, and it’s a nice change of pace, bright and hopeful and wide-eyed, full of optimism and a wonderful feeling of possibility that a lot of the darker tracks on Words just don’t have. And another in the never-heard-it group, “All You Do Is Talk,” is the one track where Hammon broke the rules she laid down at the outset, but I find myself not minding one bit.

It’s a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club track, so it’s still a “dude” song, but it’s from 2007, not either of the two decades prior. But hey, who cares, really? This is a covers album, not a Dogme 95 film, after all. It’s a great, great song, and Hammon does it magnificently, mutating it until it almost sounds like it was from the ’80s, some long-lost Pat Benatar tune. Oh, and it provides the title of the album, which is a nice touch.

Words Don’t Bleed closes out with the two tracks I knew best of the whole bunch. “Maneater” is lush and electronicized, seriously reminiscent of both White Sea and M83 (which makes sense, given Morgan Kibby used to do vocals for M83); the track is beautiful and hazy, with synths and clicking, throwback percussion roiling around over a serene bed of piano melody. It takes the half-grinning warning of the Hall & Oates original and makes it sound alluring, with Hammon singing “She’ll rip your world apart” like it’s something that would almost be worth it.

Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” is my personal hands-down favorite of the songs covered on Words, which made me both excited and nervous, because taking something that’s — to me, anyway — a classic and trying to make it your own is a risky undertaking. This version feels reverential and true to the original, however, although it comes off a lot less sexual than the original, which is possibly for the best — I love the song, but that aspect’s always felt a little creepy, to be honest.

Instead, the song seems to draw from Hammon’s background in worship music; the way she does it here, it’s not a barely-restrained come-on, it’s a hymn, full of glory and sincere adoration, and that’s a beautiful, beautiful shift in both tone and meaning. And it works, best of all. Hammon’s taken one of The Boss’s best-known, best-loved songs and changed it into something very, very different while keeping it amazing, and that’s no small feat.

And now that I’m thinking about it, that statement probably applies to all of the songs on here, to one extent or another. They’re all somebody’s “classic” song, like “I’m On Fire” is classic to me, and Hammon’s taken them and remade them into something new and wonderful.

[Cameron Dezen Hammon's album release show is 3/4/16 at The Nightingale Room, along with DJ Gracie Chavez.]
(Blue Dress Records; Cameron Dezen Hammon -- https://camerondezenhammon.com/; Cameron Dezen Hammon (Facebook) -- https://www.facebook.com/cameronhammon; Cameron Dezen Hammon (Twitter) -- https://twitter.com/CameronDHammon; Cameron Dezen Hammon (Instagram) -- https://www.instagram.com/camerondhammon/; Cameron Dezen Hammon (Youtube) -- https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCaMXRk4txvB7xT0AJ4wrQvg)
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Review by . Review posted Friday, March 4th, 2016. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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