Mick Harvey is God's gift to public radio (or what used to be public radio), turning his listeners on to the great obscure songbook the way Nina Simone or Johnny Cash did with their own covers albums. The difference is that Harvey is content to play second fiddle, as he has done as musical director with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and Simon Bonney's Crime and the City Solution. On his own, though, Harvey doesn't just share the limelight; he focuses it elsewhere. He's now made two albums translating Serge Gainsbourg songs into English. And last year he made his solo debut but using other people's songs.
His talent was in not only arranging but personalizing the material — the newly sober Harvey sang "Demon Alcohol" like his life depended on it (and, from all reports, it pretty much did). With Two of Diamonds, though, the stakes are different. Harvey's obviously more comfortable as a frontman and less dependent on the borrowed equity of his source material. The covers are largely from obscure Australian artists (i.e., the Saints and other Down Under also-rans), and a song like "Everything is Fixed" — which is basically the Bad Seeds' "Mercy Seat" by way of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows" — is as solid a find as any in Harvey's songbook thus far.
Nevertheless, Harvey truly excels — both musically and performance-wise — when he fleshes out his own songs. There are only two here, sure, but "Blue Arrows" is the album's best track, both because it cuts through the twangy stylizations that mark much of the material and because — based solely around Harvey and a stand-up bass supported by a chiming keyboards — it's a simpler effort and more impassioned for it. Well done — but not overly!
Hobey Echlin writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.