An uninspired tribute LP is basically all-star karaoke; a bad one is a frickin’ Dean Martin celebrity roast. It takes more than just fidelity, good intentions or even reverence to make a tribute record worth owning, let alone worthy of its subject. Even enjoyable ones are often uneven and unfocused, and on the worst ones, the sole unifying principlethe songwriter/band’s visiongets spoiled by indifferent remakes and conceptual shoddiness. The worst of the worst exploit the artist being paid tribute to assemble what amounts to a label sampler or an advertisement for some local music scene.
That said, there are new tribute albums out right nowLynne Me Your Ears: A Tribute to the Music of Jeff Lynne and This Is Where I Belong: The Songs of Ray Davies & The Kinksthat, by and large, manage to sidestep the flaws inherent in the genre. What’s more, Nashville-based musicians are strongly represented on both. The former is overstuffed, admittedly, but the Nashville acts acquit themselves well; the latter is actually as good as the concept gets.
Lynne Me Your Ears comes from Not Lame Records, the Colorado-based power-pop specialists. The double-disc set covers Lynne’s work from his days with British garage band The Idle Race through his stint with The Move, his leadership of the Electric Light Orchestra and his spearheading of the Traveling Wilburys project. Among the Nashville-area musicians who contribute tracks are Doug Powell (executive producer of the project, and the one-man-band behind a spacey version of “Can’t Get It Out of My Head”), SWAG (who bring volume and crunch to “Don’t Bring Me Down”), Fleming and John (who elucidate the orchestral twists and turns of “Eldorado”), Bill Lloyd (who tackles the pretty ELO B-side “When Time Stood Still” with help from The Shazam’s Hans Rotenberry), and The Shazam (whose propulsive “Twilight” is the collection’s highlight).
Lynne Me Your Ears suffers some from being overlong and overly faithfultoo many of the artists try merely to reproduce Lynne’s music, rather than supplying a personal stamp. Still, Lynne’s gift for socko melodies and visionary groove-rock arrangements has never been fully appreciated, and what the almost note-for-note reproductions prove is that his compositions are pretty un-screw-up-able. And the collection is worth it for the moments that reach a little, like Todd Rundgren’s chill-out rendition of “Bluebird Is Dead.”
Lynne Me Your Ears is modestly successful, but not the superior model of the tribute form that This Is Where I Belong is. The Davies tribute, released by Rykodisc/Praxis, is blessed by a surprisingly coherent agendanamely, to recognize Davies’ mastery of, and influence upon, a panoply of musical styles. In the songwriter’s rich catalog, music hall rubs up against honky-tonk, pop gets its power prefix, and cruelly ironic character sketches coexist with love songs and ballads of staggering loveliness.
Davies’ breadth as a songwriter makes him better suited than most to guest-star reworkings; his songs are a mirror in which artists see their own reflections. On This Is Where I Belong, Cracker find a vein of Southern boogie in the cool Britannia of “Victoria,” while Bebel Gilberto nails the bossa nova balladry of “No Return,” and Jonathan Richman invests “Stop Your Sobbing” with such sprightly optimism that it’s hard to believe it’s not a Jojo original. Executive producer Jim Pitt (the Nashville-based music booker for Late Night With Conan O’Brien) wisely steered the performers away from obvious choices. Who needs another “Lola” or “You Really Got Me” when hidden gems like “Starstruck” lie waiting for rediscovery, as in Steve Forbert’s irresistibly quavery reading?
More could be said about the strong contributions of Josh Rouse, Tim O’Brien and longtime Davies interpreters Yo La Tengo, but two tracks in particular make this comp essential. Bill Lloyd and Tommy Womack make a present to Davies of “Picture Book,” showing a fan’s affection and exuberance in every roller coaster dip of the chorus. Deeper and spookier is Lambchop’s brilliant version of “Art Lover,” in which Davies burrows inside the skin of a pedophile gazing at a playground. It’s a song that could be played for campy laughs or facile shivers. And yet Lambchop vocalist Kurt Wagner sings it without an ounce of distancein a choked voice that makes Davies’ chilling insights his own, over a piano-organ-clarinet arrangement that plays a dirge for childhood stolen. It makes This Is Where I Belong an ideal tribute recordthe kind that illuminates unexplored facets of a favorite artist, and of the world beyond.
Noel Murray and Jim Ridley
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