I hate matchbox twenty. Their lyrics are banal, their songwriting painfully formulaic, and Rob Thomas sings with that irritating frog-in-the-throat voice that I thought only

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Forever Dusty

I hate matchbox twenty. Their lyrics are banal, their songwriting painfully formulaic, and Rob Thomas sings with that irritating frog-in-the-throat voice that I thought only Cher was permitted to use. But what I despised most about them during their set at the Experience Music Project opening was how much everyone else loved them.

My roommate and I once had a conversation about those paralytic moments when life is falling apart and you fantasize about getting 80 points lopped off your IQ, because stupid people always seem happier. She contested that being able to laugh at Saturday Night Live doesn't mean your lot is any better. Everybody gets upset about something, even if it's just a fear you'll lose the Survivor office pool and that cute administrative assistant will never flirt with you again.

Watching the crowd at matchbox twenty, I realized how dead-on that is. Wretched songs, like that "Real World" one that sticks in my head till I want to splatter my brains against the kitchen wall with a .38 special, touch a huge number of folks on some fundamental level. The world most people want to see reflected back at them via pop music is a remarkably simple one.

I find matchbox twenty repugnant because their music doesn't speak to my experiences and I'm bitter about being in the minority. But that's not what I want to write about. Bitching about bad music is just pissing into the wind. Instead, recalling all those engrossed fans at Memorial Stadium, I tried to conjure up a parallel, a musician who's helped snooty ol' me transcend my miserable existence the same way Rob Thomas says something meaningful to the simpletons who've made his band famous.

The answer came immediately: Dusty Springfield.

It's been many years since I fell head-over-heels in love with a guy. But I can put on "Breakfast in Bed" from 1969's Dusty In Memphis, and when Dusty promises her paramour "a kiss or three," I'm right on the same page of the romance. Her singing triggers a response so deep in me that I lose track of where she ends and I begin.

Judging from the new album Forever Dusty (R&D Records), I'm not the only one.

Forever Dusty, featuring 17 new Dusty covers by female artists, sat neglected by my stereo for weeks. I'm not a big fan of tribute albums, and I like anything that smacks of "womyn's music" even less. Not that I'm a misogynist, but I heard many of the gals featured here—Indigo Girls, the Butchies, disappear fear—when I lived with a lesbian, and my inability to share her appreciation for recording artists of this stripe led me to conclude that when it comes to pop music, Fags are from Pluto and dykes are from Jupiter. (Wait, switch that—Jupiter's bigger.)

The challenge when covering Springfield is to overcome the indelible stamp Dusty inevitably left on anything she sang. She could find the subtlest emotional nuance in even the simplest ditty (check out her "(They Long To Be) Close To You") and always intuitively knew when to pull back to a whisper, or turn up the juice for a passionate crescendo. Dusty didn't just visit songs; she inhabited every nook and cranny of them.

The best contributions to Forever Dusty, then, are the ones in which the artist acknowledges Dusty's lingering spirit, yet still infuses her own version with distinctive personality. Jill Sobule's "Just a Little Lovin'" starts off sweetly confessional, slowly swelling in exuberance. Marti Jones scales back "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" just enough to erase the memory of hearing Dusty's grandiose original blaring out of one too many Little Italy spaghetti joints. Jennifer Kimball's spacey deconstruction of "Chained to a Memory" spotlights eccentric vocal inflections and interpolated melodic intervals that eerily recall Canadian chanteuse Mary Margaret O'Hara.

This album also includes a few curveballs. Indigo Girls weigh in with "Broken Blossoms," an antiwar number even Dusty diehards may not know. On "Yesterday When I Was Young," Two Nice Girls vet Gretchen Phillips unfurls a vocal so tender-yet-seasoned one hopes she'll record a whole album of author Charles Aznavour's songs. And although Carole Pope, formerly of Rough Trade (speaking of obscure Canadian artists . . .) and Springfield's lover for a spell, adds too many jagged edges to "Soft Core," the quasi-Brechtian ditty serves as a powerful reminder of Dusty's range as an interpreter.

Even the less engaging tracks here manage to preserve one quality essential to Springfield's appeal: Even at her most lyrically vulnerable, her performances were unwaveringly assured. Unlike a lot of contemporary chart-toppers, her technical gifts only enhanced, and never overshadowed, the emotional content of the material. She always sounds honest. So do the performers of Forever Dusty. And as long as that spirit prevails somewhere, Rob Thomas won't need to make his bodyguards memorize my photo.

 
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