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Women’s voices reimagine the songs of the Police and Tom Waits on 2 new albums

Juliana Hatfield: She'll be watching you

Juliana Hatfield: She'll be watching you Photo courtesy of the artist

The defining feature of Tom Waits’ music is a gravelly, guttural voice that makes Bob Dylan sound like a choirboy.

Waits’ harsh bellow has been an acquired taste for a sizeable cult since the ’70s, but its resolutely uncommercial sound means that his songs have traveled farthest when covered by more palatable singers. And last week 12 female songwriters, including Aimee Mann and Patty Griffin, joined the growing legion of Waits interpreters with the release of the Nashville label Dualtone’s new compilation Come On Up to the House: Women Sing Waits.

For decades, Waits was most famously covered by other men with deep or raspy voices: Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Bob Seger, and Don Henley. But in the 21st century, women have led the way in beautifying the Waits songbook, from Joan Baez to Norah Jones and Diana Krall. Nearly half the tracks on the 2000 tribute album New Coat of Paint: Songs of Tom Waits were sung by women, including Neko Case and Eleni Mandell. Scarlett Johansson made her unlikely debut as a recording artist in 2008 with a collection of Waits covers, Anywhere I Lay My Head. And Tori Amos included “Time” on an album of songs originally performed by men, 2001’s Strange Little Girls.

Come On Up to the House’s contributors range from rising indie-rock singer Phoebe Bridgers to British neo-soul star Corinne Bailey Rae, but the emphasis is on the kind of Americana and indie folk that Dualtone usually releases. Waits’ most beloved ballads get some of their loveliest renditions to date, including Iris DeMent’s heartbreaking “House Where Nobody Lives” and second-generation Waits interpreter Rosanne Cash’s stately take on “Time.” Even the title track, a rousing closer on Waits’ 1999 album Mule Variations, is made slower and sweeter by the Oregon band Joseph. And it bears mentioning that Waits’ most significant collaborator is his wife, Kathleen Brennan, who co-wrote five of the songs covered here.

One reason Waits’ ballads are so arresting in the context of his own albums is their stark contrast to his other material: skronky blues rock, marimba-pounding sea shanties, beat poetry character studies, and jagged lo-fi experiments. In that respect, Come On Up to the House is far less adventurous or interested in Waits’ artistic range than New Coat of Paint, which cast a wider net in its tracks sung by women, including Lydia Lunch’s take on “Heartattack and Vine.”

Released in November, Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police turns another female voice loose on a worthy discography, but with a different attitude and different results. Hatfield, a ’90s alt-rock star, takes a scrappy, lo-fi approach to the Police’s polished new wave classics. She largely avoids the hits, and spends nearly half the record covering songs from their punky 1978 debut, Outlandos d’Amour, with the enthusiasm of someone who probably wore out a cassette of the album in middle school.

Hatfield’s simple, bratty approach to the Police’s songs is refreshingly unpretentious, the opposite of the direction Sting has taken in the decades since the group broke up. She strips away the band’s delicate reggae grooves for simple thumping rock beats, on both a drum kit and a drum machine, and avoids any hint of Sting’s faux Caribbean accent (although she does cover “Hungry for You,” a particularly indulgent Sting lyric sung in French). Hatfield doesn’t completely neglect the Police’s charms as a pop band—“Roxanne” and “Every Breath You Take” are here—but deep cuts, such as the obscure B-side “Landlord,” with its class conflict invective, are the meat of the record. Where last year’s Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John was content to focus on the Australian pop star’s hits, here Hatfield presents a new angle on the Police.

Neither Come On Up to the House nor Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police overtly acknowledges the gender politics of women singing songs originated by men. And neither changes the perspective of the lyrics: Corinne Bailey Rae still sings adoringly about a Jersey girl like Waits did, and Hatfield still sings possessively about Roxanne like Sting did. But both albums are worthy additions to a subgenre of covers albums that has grown significantly in 2019 alone: in February, country star Trisha Yearwood reimagined Sinatra standards on Let’s Be Frank, and in August, the Bird and the Bee’s Interpreting the Masters Volume 2: A Tribute to Van Halen recast David Lee Roth-era cock rock anthems with coy female vocals and piano pop flourishes. At a time when female singer-songwriters have taken charge more than ever in both the underground and the mainstream, reclaiming a man’s song is still in and of itself a rewarding act of creation and curation.