Tribute Albums can be tricky propositions. Too often the rightfully unknown are paying tribute to the properly unheralded, or tribute albums go to the other extreme, where superstars go through the motions covering the best known songs of one of their peers. They are often used to raise money for worthy causes, so criticizing them harshly can make you seem like a cad, but you cannot turn off your critical faculties simply because the money raised goes to saving Bosnian puppies.
To my ears, the keys to a successful tribute album are having an artist who has written good songs; those songs need to be pliable enough to work in multiple genres; the artists paying tribute should use those songs as a jumping off point and try to make the songs their own, rather than slavishly recreating the original artist’s sound; and the money raised needs to be focused on saving those Bosnian puppies.
Rave On: The Songs of Buddy Holly – I love Buddy Holly’s music and I am loving this tribute album. All of the artists involved appear to love his music also, but none treat it with reverence. Instead, each artist takes the song they have been assigned and puts their original stamp on it. The standout tracks for me are Kid Rock doing Well Alright; Patti Smith’s beautiful take on Words of Love, which sounds like the soundtrack to a love scene in Fellini film; and Paul McCartney doing his best Tav Falco impression on It’s So Easy.
The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams – The story behind this album is that Hank Williams left behind a notebook filled with lyrics (but no music) when he died. His widow suggested that Bob Dylan take the lyrics and work up arrangements for the songs. Dylan started the project, decided it was too much for one person to do alone, so he recruited other artists to work up the lyrics into completed songs. To the best of my knowledge, there are no recordings of Hank Williams performing any of these songs (so technically this is not a Tribute Album), yet Williams is such a distinctive artist with such a unique voice, that you can hear him in each track. None of these artists take any risks, sticking with straightforward country arrangements, but the songs are so good that it really does not matter. The standouts are Alan Jackson, who has always sounded to me like a generic country singer, but who does a great job with You’ve Been Lonesome, Too and Jakob Dylan, Bob’s kid, whose arrangement of Oh, Mama, Come Home may owe more to his Pop than to Hank, but still does a great job.
Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan – At over 70 songs and artists, I am not going to pretend that I have fully digested this album (a fundraiser for Amnesty International), so I am just going to give you some broad impressions, along with the highlights and lowlights. The artists who approached these songs with reverence tend to fall short, while those who take an experimental angle have a bit more success. Too many take a straight country and/or folk and/or blues approach, and while I understand that they may be intimidated by the songs and by Dylan, you are not going to ‘out Dylan’ Dylan. For example, Billy Bragg’s take on Lay Down Your Weary Tune is the same as Dylan’s version, just sung with a Cockney accent. It is not bad, but it brings nothing fresh to the song. The same can be said about One More Cup of Coffee sung by Steve Earle and Lucia Micarelli, which sounds like Dylan’s version on Desire, just sung with a Texan twang. There are a few exceptions to this general rule. Miley Cyrus (yes, Hanna frigging Montana!) sings the hell out of You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go in an arrangement that is substantially the same as heard on Blood on the Tracks, Patti Smith does Drifter’s Escape, just a bit louder than Dylan’s take on John Wesley Harding, and Bettye Lavette does a great version of Most of the Time that sounds like an amalgamation of Dylan’s takes of the song. Those three stick close to Dylan’s originals, but all are excellent, and I am not kidding about Hanna Montana. She does a bang up job with her tune.
This album shines when the artists take some chances with the material. State Radio (Quick confession: I never heard of this band before I picked up this album) do a heavy rap version of John Brown that highlights the timelessness of the lyrics. Folk music versions of this song make it sound like it is about a soldier coming home from the American Civil War. This version could be about a soldier returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. Zee Avi (again, I never heard of her before hearing this album) does a version of Tomorrow is a Long Time that would not sound out of place in Renaissance England. I can imagine her singing it outside the Globe Theater before the debut performance of Romeo & Juliet, a nervous Will Shakespeare pacing outside. The Gaslight Anthem bring their Jersey shore rock and soul sound to Changing of the Guard, and seeing as that song (and the album it came from, Street Legal) sound like it was inspired by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (who were inspired by Dylan in turn), the circle has been completed.
One final note: No one ever needs to hear Dave Matthews sing All Along The Watchtower ever again. It is lousy. Where Hendrix uncovered the hidden passion and anger in the song, Dave Matthews turns it into a festival of bombastic nonsense that loses the subtleties of Dylan’s lyrics.
This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark – Guy Clark is the artist being paid tribute to whose work I am least familiar with, so I am not all that familiar with the original takes of most of the songs covered here. Most of the artists here work in the same Americana genre that Guy Clark helped establish, and none stray too far afield from that sound. Kris Kristofferson brings a needed sense of world weariness to Hemingway’s Whiskey, Willie Nelson does his usual good work on Guy Clark’s best known song, Desperadoes Waiting for a Train, and Emmylou Harris and John Prine doing a beautiful version of Magnolia Wind. My favorite song from this album is Dublin Blues, as covered by Joe Ely. I am familiar with Guy Clark’s original take on that song, and I prefer Ely’s version.
A small sample of these albums can be heard here.