Fiercely creative musicians like Sheila Ellis and Richard E — collectively known as Annabel (lee) — will always grab my attention. And the group’s ability to show the world another unfamiliar property of their musical superpowers with every release made me ask a near-rhetorical question a few months ago: “What’s next?”
Live Covers, the duo’s latest release, is obviously not their tailor-made response to my thoughts, but they found another way to surprise me. And I’m sure that I’m not the only one.
A smoking-hot eight-piece band that includes Richard E playing acoustic guitar accompanies the duo’s uncommon exploration of covers from four universally praised contemporary composers: David Bowie (“Blackstar”), Nick Drake (“River Man”), Michel LeGrand (“Windmills”), and Wayne Shorter (“Footprints”). While I’m confident that Annabel (lee) could have chosen virtually any four tunes to knock out of the ballpark, their song choices reflect an exciting similarity in how all four songs — through poetic verse, rhythmic transitions, or rich emotion — represent introspective documents from each legendary artist.
I had never heard the duo perform post-bop jazz and had no expectations before pressing the play button, but I remain stunned by their treatment of “Footprints”. This uptempo version builds tension that transitions to silky and focused releases — while I slowly found myself lying in a pot of boiling water. An element of the original composition’s brilliance lies in how it brought together multiple African diasporic patterns, which is not lost in Annabel (lee)’s vision. The band seemed to have a ball exploring how much they could play with rhythm in one song.
I’ve previously written about how Richard E and Sheila Ellis’ compositions contain an appealing Nick Drake element, so I was pleasantly amused to hear their take on “River Man”. Pain shouldn’t sound this good. Their version loses none of the original’s emotional grip, and Ellis brings the right kind of vocals to add a new level of harrowing engagement.
Covering Bowie can be controversial and filled with immediate rejections by the star’s beloved worshippers — particularly when referring to a song released just two days before Bowie left the planet. “Blackstar”, like the other songs on Live Covers, retains a heaping dose of the artist’s somber self-reflection. Annabel (lee) deftly treats this cover by not matching the song’s extended mood-change sequence and offers just enough length to feel more like a tease, if not a groove-inducing tribute. Conversely, “Windmills” takes the form of a complex and slow-moving dreamscape — not a challenge for this band — and, like the original version, its tonality captures an ambivalent set of emotional statements that can find a comfortable place in TV and film scores.
Once again, my highest praise for music is reserved for releases that deserve to be played now and years later. Annabel (lee), through Live Covers, presented us with a gift that will reward our ears for a long while.
Live Covers is out today. Grab a copy on their Bandcamp page.
The band members on this album deserve tons of credit for taking on challenging music to cover. Please allow me to list them:
Mark Gutierrez – Bass
Sonjia Hubert Harper – Flute, Backing Vocals
Eric Klerks – Electric Guitar
Anthony Lopez – Keyboards
Jillian Lopez – Harp
Aniela Perry – Cello
Chris Parise – Drums