I have a well-publicized and notorious aversion to covers and, in particular, cover albums. Blame Joan Jett who poisoned me forever when in 1990 she released a musical felony commonly referred to as 'The Hit List'. Let me clarify, why, I not only give 'Ultraglide in Black' a pass on the album of covers tag, but how this Detroit classic manages to succeed on three separate levels.
First, the retro cover, paying homage to Stevie Wonder's 1967 cover for 'I Was Made To Love Her'. The art is spot on and evokes an appreciative nostalgia for the influence and magic Motown weaved through, not only Michigan, but the country. Second, the brazen audacity for garage rock revivalists to jump into the Rn B/soul swimming pool. This type of outing can't be described as original, but damn if it isn't 90% of the way to clever. Distant cousins rock and soul, are thrown together in a fruit and vegetable salad that, for most of 'Ultraglide', is as tasty as the chicken shawarma at Bucharest Grill. Third, the songs are actually re-crafted in a spirit that is at the, same time, respectfully faithful to the vision of the original artists AND breathes a modern revolutionary air into tracks like Stevie Wonder's 'Living For The City'. If you're one of the many who have suffered through Detroit's reversal of fortune, this garage-version of 'City' will strike a particularly sensitive chord. It's difficult to imagine the track being grittier and dirtier than it was in 1973 when Wonder released his landmark Innervisions LP. Yet, somehow, Mick Collins and his revolving group of eclectic artists found a way to infuse a deft touch of Motor City sorrow.
In May of 2001, our country was still living in pre-911 attacks naivety. Sure, the economy was sputtering, but nationally we still felt invincible. Thanks to the White Stripes, the nation's musical elite had focused their attention on a full-blown garage rock revival that had simmered underground in Detroit for more than a decade via bands like the The Von Bondies and The Detroit Cobras. It may have been premature to say this in 2001, but this is an album surprisingly reflective of that time. There's an unmistakable 'anything is possible' energy and 'can-do' enthusiasm on every track articulating how the idea of a garage rock band doing soul covers seemed plausible to Mick Collins. Start with 'I'm Qualified to Satisfy You', the track that best fulfills the original concept for this album. This take on 'Qualified' starts at a ten, dances all around the Fillmore stage like Barry White (R.I.P.) after three Red Bulls, and, by the chorus, finds a way to turn the volume one step higher. The one original on this collection is the stellar 'You're Love Belongs Under A Rock', which fits the album perfectly. It provides a vivid sonic image of what Jimi Hendrix could have achieved had he decided to record an album backed by the MC5. Smokey Robinson's 'If You Can Want' continues the spark, and you'll be tapping your feet while churning out those quarterly expense reports.
And when you're standing in line at Kroger waiting to pay for that gallon milk, that song you're humming ? Yeah, that's Sly and The Family Stone's 'Underdog', translated for the fuzz guitar era. With it's 'unnndeeerrrrdooooooggg' chorus, that will annoyingly stick in your brain for weeks.
The only track where the flame simmers to a slow burn is George Clinton's wistful 'I'll Wait'. Here The Dirtbombs do the funk master proud with an album highlight marked by sincere angst in the vocals.
Looking back, I still would've preferred The Dirtbombs write more of their own soul or Rn B songs instead of taking the easy route and covering established records. But, given how high their interpretation of songs like 'Chains of Love' or 'Kung-Fu' soar, it's moderately ridiculous to criticize that choice in hindsight. 'Ultraglide In Black' was a unique, calculated risk that opened the ears of listeners to the DIY spirit that continues to carry Detroit through harrowing uncertainty.
And the risk still pays off.