Hearing grizzled grunge survivor Mark Lanegan gruffly intone lounge standard "Autumn Leaves" could be one of the year's unexpected musical highlights. The former Screaming Trees frontman has spent the past two decades exploring more romantic country and blues-based avenues, but upcoming album Imitations features his warmest vocals yet.
Lanegan has taken on the easy listening hits that his parents enjoyed, a rare example of reaching back to childhood in search of new inspiration. Pop mostly seems stuck in a permanent adolescent hormonal haze – understandable when the quality of music recreating more innocent times begins and ends with Rolf Harris's "Two Little Boys" or "Land of Make Believe" by Bucks Fizz.
Lanegan sidesteps this by applying his wizened voice to a set of lyrics softer than his usual taste. An affectionate take on Nancy Sinatra's James Bond theme "You Only Live Twice" sits beside a "Mack the Knife" that retains a more sinister aspect than, say, Bobby Darin's swinging rendition. These are complemented by a cover of John Cale's bittersweet "I'm Not the Loving Kind", suggesting it could also work as a standard. By reaching back, Lanegan is either connecting the innocent feel of these tunes to the ideal of a carefree childhood or hinting at an escapist dream before he rebelled against small-town Washington State.
Lanegan has also reminisced about growing up in a trailer park and being caught shoplifting before his first taste of jail. Another musician, Austin, Texas's Will Sheff, has used his childhood memories in a different way, writing an album based on his own more sedate upbringing. The Silver Gymnasium contains a number of shifts for the linchpin of Okkervil River, a band known for literate lyrics and ambitious arrangements that fuse Americana with college rock. Okkervil have recorded concept albums before, though 2005's breakthrough work Black Sheep Boy was loosely based on the career of heroin-addicted songwriter Tim Hardin.
Previously, Sheff has drawn on a mix of real-life figures and archetypal characters, so a more personal approach gives him a fresh challenge, especially given a mundane milieu where his parents worked as boarding-school teachers. "I wanted to write a record that reached out to other people and showed them a good time," Sheff says, "a record based in autobiography, that spoke about my memories of a specific moment."
Just like Lanegan, Sheff is also thinking about the music of his youth, though he mentions more 1980s names like John Mellencamp and Cyndi Lauper. To record Silver Gymnasium, he recruited a producer who worked with both those artists, John Agnello. The veteran also worked briefly on Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA, with which Okkervil's most accessible work to date shares some similarities.
The band have been inching closer to Arcade Fire-style immediacy for some time, and with paeans to endless summers such as "Stay Young", this could be their moment – just as Lanegan cements his reputation as a purveyor of classic songs with hard-won wisdom. And there's nothing childish about that.
Mark Lanegan's 'Imitations' is out on 16 September on Heavenly Recordings. 'I'm Not the Loving Kind' is available to stream now. Okkervil River's 'The Silver Gymnasium' is out on 30 September on [PIAS] Cooperative