The subtitle of Leann Rimes’ new album — ”Inspirational Songs” — isn’t the most portentous part of its cover. Nor is it the surprisingly drab artwork, which has the low-budget look of a telemarketed album. No, what’s most striking about the cover of Rimes’ third record is the album’s title: You Light Up My Life.
Yes, that ”You Light Up My Life,” Debby Boone’s white-zombie ballad from 1977, and now the first single from Rimes’ album. Save for a lonely pedal steel guitar that wafts through it, Rimes and her producers haven’t toyed one bit with the original. From the opening piano chords to the orchestral swell in the chorus, Boone’s version is treated as if it were a sacred text not to be desecrated.
What’s most disturbing about Rimes’ rendition, though, is how snugly it fits in with the current flood of remakes or hits that blatantly sample recognizable hooks. Sure, covers have been as much a part of rock as merchandising: Don’t forget that Elvis’ ”Hound Dog” was a swipe of Big Mama Thornton’s version of three years earlier. But the trend is now so out of hand, and so cynical, that it’s becoming increasingly hard to distinguish an oldies station from a Top 40 outlet.
Remakes generally fall into one of two categories, neither of them a pretty sight. First are the stalled music-biz veterans groping their way back onto the charts. 10,000 Maniacs, in search of life beyond Natalie Merchant, have recast Roxy Music’s ghoulishly elegant ”More Than This” as anemic folk rock; although it’s working its way up the Top 40, rarely has the phrase ”It was fun for a while” resonated more. On his latest release, LL Cool J, who should know better, opts for an update of New Edition’s ”Candy Girl.” (Perhaps his sitcom career is cutting into his songwriting time.) Lisa Stansfield, whose lone top 10 hit (1990’s ”All Around the World”) was a savvy homage to heavy-soul breather Barry White, returns from wherever she’s been with a pointless cover of White’s ”Never, Never Gonna Give You Up,” its air of desperation heightened by au courant touches like turntable scratching and a ”Yea-aah, check it!” rap section.
The second grouping consists of newcomers all too eager to make their mark. Az Yet are now officially on the map thanks to their bleat-by-numbers retread of Chicago’s ”Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” Elsewhere on the pop chart, the R&B quartet Allure walk through Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam’s 1986 ballad ”All Cried Out.” Diana King is breaking through with a dance-club recasting of the Bacharach-David standard ”I Say a Little Prayer.” Who cares if the beats steamroll right over the tangled emotions of the lyric, right?
As many of the above tellingly reveal, the remake assault has been both the boon and bane of R&B. Consider Warren G’s ”I Shot the Sheriff,” Seal’s ”Fly Like an Eagle,” and Ginuwine’s ”When Doves Cry,” obvious recent examples of a genre in which back-catalog surfing has overtaken actual songwriting. Wyclef Jean’s ”We Trying to Stay Alive,” which samples bell-bottom-wide chunks of the Bee Gees’ anthem, is merely the latest and most slavish example of the way in which the Fugees are making a career out of resurrecting oldies. R&B’s current kingpin, producer and solo act Sean ”Puffy” Combs, seems to have earned a degree in the art of breaking into other people’s songs and hauling off the best parts. The best licks in his productions are wholesale appropriations — from the Police’s ”Every Breath You Take” in ”I’ll Be Missing You” (and other tracks on his No Way Out album) to Diana Ross’ ”I’m Coming Out” in the Notorious B.I.G.’s posthumous hit, ”Mo Money Mo Problems.” The most imaginative sampling sews together bits of various records to form an entirely new piece of music, but Combs is simply M.C. Hammer with street cred.
The blame for this dubious state of affairs (next up: Janet Jackson doing Rod Stewart’s ”Tonight’s the Night [Gonna Be Alright]” on her new album, out next month) doesn’t lie just with idea-deprived songwriters and musicians but with the business itself. At a time when thousands of albums and singles are released each month, it’s hard to fault talent for recording familiar songs — how else to get noticed?
Rimes is no longer a newcomer, nor is she a hit-starved veteran. Yet much of You Light Up My Life consists of unnecessary covers. Coming off like an eager-to-please Star Search finalist, she plows full volume and nuance-free through faithful renditions of ”The Rose,” ”Amazing Grace,” and ”Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” (The addition of an s to the latter’s title is as innovative as Rimes gets.) The arrangements forsake the sleek honky-tonk of her debut, Blue, for gloppy adult contemporary.
If that sounds odd, you haven’t heard the other half of it. One of the most puzzling hodgepodges ever assembled by a superstar act, the album (which Rimes’ people insist isn’t the true follow-up to Blue) also tosses in her current hit, the Con Air windstorm ”How Do I Live,” as well as ”God Bless America” and the national anthem. (Is this her Super Bowl audition tape?) What ties these strands together is, again, the disc’s subtitle. Rimes sings hits like ”The Rose” as if they were hymns, and the non-brand-name tracks are overtly Christian: ”Clinging to a Saving Hand” (the Lord’s, that is), ”I Know Who Holds Tomorrow” (Jesus), and ”Ten Thousand Angels Cried” (over the Crucifixion). Since Debby Boone always insisted that the subject of ”You Light Up My Life” was no mere mortal but the Lord himself, there may be some method to Rimes’ madness. Perhaps she should have called the album The Resurrections. C-