Steve Wilson. On music.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Rave On Buddy Holly (Fantasy Records)

Just what the world needs another “tribute” album. With occasional exceptions (the Roky Erickson tribute Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye springs to mind) these anthologies are occasions mostly for pointless retreads or lame-brain deconstructions of familiar music – your appreciation for the individual treatment owing almost entirely to some combination of your feeling for the original material and for the artist who’s approaching it.

But as long as there are great songwriters and performers there will be people who feel motivated to honor them. And Buddy Holly, who would be seventy-five this year, left behind a beautiful legacy in his sadly foreshortened life (he died at twenty-two). Compilation producers Randall Poster and Gelya Robb collected nineteen tracks for Rave On Buddy Holly, drawing from both the current alterna-crowd and the legacy acts who influenced them.

Generally, the older iconic acts have more feeling for this material than the younger musicians. Nick Lowe stays true to the sound and spirit of “Changing All Those Changes;” here he sounds more like the guy who cut Jesus of Cool and Labour of Lust than the middle-aged crooner he’s become. I’ve always held that the Velvet Underground’s guitar rhythms extended Holly’s style, turning his insistent right hand into something more agitated and urban. Lou Reed’s turn on “Peggy Sue” just feels right. Laurie Anderson’s violin playing adds just the right touch of pleasing anti-musicality (think “Tomorrow Never Knows) complementing Reed’s churning rhythm guitar. Patti Smith’s devotional take on “Words of Love,” inspired by Allen Ginsberg concertina mantras, is dear, spiritual and surpassingly selfless. Tony Shanahan's production frames Smith’s vocal beautifully.

Hey, you gotta have Paul Mc McCartney on here, huh? His raw and randy version of “It’s So Easy” is extended by half thanks to a lot of gravel-voiced exhortations. Sure sounds like Macca tipped a pint or two before they hit ‘record.’ But the gently-in-the-red vocals and boisterous guitar work definitely give his version of the song some edge.

Among the younger performers the best efforts either hue closely to the spirit of Holly’s originals or blow them up completely. My Morning Jacket’s attempt to “Yesterday”-up “True Love Ways” is a real dead fish. Yin Yames can be an expressive singer, but here he sounds like Bobby Goldsboro; I expect him to break into “Honey” any second. Modest Mouse’s “That’ll Be the Day” is like, totally epic-fail, you know – their attempt at reimagining the song only demonstrates their unflattering lack of basic musicality. Color me shocked.

Julian Casablancas’s take on “Rave On” is better. His imaginative, playful backing vocals lend a sly, modern earthiness to his delivery. She & Him do justice to “Oh Boy,” too; it’s pretty, it’s Zooey D. and M. Ward doing what they do, but Buddy is a sympathetic target for their casual charms. More challenging is Florence + the Machine’s Big Easy reinterpretation of “Not Fade Away.” She sings it like a ticked off temptress, sultry and severe at the same time. CC Adcock’s production keeps the pot on simmer, allowing Ian Neville on electric piano and Matt Persine on Sousaphone to add a dash of gris-gris and second line, respectively. Florence is an outsider blues siren, part Etta James, part Siouxsie Sioux – and it works. Justin Townes Earle does a fine job with “Maybe Baby;’ guitarist Christ Masterson throws in some rock steady bounce against the song’s basic rhythm and Earle plays it straight, sounding more than a little like Marshall Crenshaw (hey, he would have been a natural for this, eh?).

Falling outside the old/new icon dichotomy are performers like Fiona Apple. While she is said to have a new record ready to go, it’s been a while since we’ve heard from her. Her version of “Everyday” (with Jon Brion) has a sweet, almost devout quality. The always tasteful Benmont Tench contributes a nice celeste part. Having matured as an artist, Apple gets it that some songs speak for themselves if the singer stays out of the way. This is also the lesson that Rachel Nagy has learned. The Detroit Cobras have made a living playing other people’s songs in this era of sheer original brilliance (sarcasm meter: 9.6). Their instincts for bedrock ‘n’ roll/rhythm ‘n’ blues tunes are practically infallible. And “Heartbeat” certainly suffers nothing at their rocking hands.

Cee Lo Green’s mercifully brief take on (You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t’ Care” sounds a little like Bryan Ferry’s version and surely plays second fiddle to it. And I like Cee Lo. He just doesn’t sound convincing here. Graham Nash’s “Raining in my Heart” is sleep inducing. Kid Rock sounds like John Mellencamp on “Well All Right” – not a terrible thing, just not very inspiring.

The few remaining songs that have evaded comment probably just didn’t get me worked up one way or another.

Like all such affairs, Rave On Buddy Holly is a mixed bag. There’s little to offend, much that entertains, and certainly not much revealed. Nonetheless, if you’re a fan of the man’s music, and your ears aren’t closed to a touch of novelty thrown in with what mostly constitutes homage, there’s plenty to enjoy. 

Reverberating: Not this time.

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