Tammy Wynette Remembered
Give Nashville credit for a tiny bit of balls: Tammy Wynette Remembered opens with Elton John covering "Stand by Your Man." A clever idea, if not a new one, except that John's cover is damn near unpalatable: meant to be wry, it comes off instead as all cheek and bombast. Rosanne Cash, for her part, drew the ace card by getting a crack at "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," so she turns the admittedly campy heartbreaker into something worse -- a dispassionate spelling bee. And so it goes on Tammy Wynette Remembered, a cheesy and overwrought "tribute" album filled with both high crimes (Lorrie Morgan's "You and Me") and misdemeanors (Wynonna's "Woman to Woman"). It's hard to beat Tammy at her own game, and the fawning quotes that sprinkle the liner notes suggest that these performers realize as much: They are just borrowing the songs that Tammy owns. A charming idea, lucrative even, but common manners tells you that when you borrow something, you shouldn't return it in such wretched condition.
1 star -- Jay Hardwig
LOST VOICES: THE SONGS OF JIMI HENDRIX, JANIS JOPLIN, AND JIM MORRISON
(Hammer & Lace)
Okay, get this. What we have here is a compilation of covers of songs by the big three "J's" who clocked out during a 10-month period at the beginning of the Seventies, as performed by various familiar and not-so-familiar artists. Benefiting the Phoenix House, touted here as the nation's largest nonprofit drug abuse service agency, the idea, if I understand this correctly, is for parents to keep their kids off drugs by buying them an album of stoner music. It might work, actually, if more of the selections here were like the polished, Bransonesque twang of Faith Hill's whiny and insipid shattering of Janis' "Piece of My Heart" or Duran Duran's bland bland take on the Doors' "Crystal Ship," but most of the (all previously released) selections here aren't bad enough to count as tough love: Etta James' "Ball and Chain," X's "Soul Kitchen," and Devo's odd twist on "Are You Experienced" are all amusing, but wait! I almost forgot about the special bonus track that closes the album. "Voices Lost (In Memory of Jimi, Janis & Jim)" by Spenser Nilsen is exactly the sort of horrid sap that Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison were put on this world to eradicate. Thus, the message is made clear: Stay off drugs, stay alive, and help keep the world free of greeting-card-like power ballads!
2 stars -- Ken Lieck
THE PINE VALLEY COSMONAUTS SALUTE THE MAJESTY OF BOB WILLS
Bob Wills never hollered on command. Audiences would scream at him to holler something, but he'd only utter shouts of "Herbie!" or "Yes, yes!" when the spirit moved him. That's the problem with this CD; while trying to recapture the spirit of the Texas Playboys, it sometimes comes off as a bit too studied and cautious. Which is not to say it's no good; the playing throughout is first-rate. The Cosmonauts are teamed up with all-star guests like Jimmie Dale Gilmore ("Trouble in Mind"), Robbie Fulks ("Across the Alley From the Alamo"), Neko Case and Bob Boyd ("Stay a Little Longer"), and of course Alejandro Escovedo and Jon Langford ("San Antonio Rose"). In all those cases, the concept works beautifully and goes a long way toward recapturing the spirit of Western Swing; in others (Jon Langford's "Sweet Kind of Love" and the Meat Purveyors' "Take Me Back to Tulsa"), the vocal performances come across as a bit restrained and nearly hesitant. Nonetheless, the band shines on every cut, if not quite with the likkered-up abandon of, say, the Texas Playboys' Tiffany Transcriptions. If anything, a revisionist approach might have worked better when dealing with something like Wills' music. Hey, even if it is Bob Wills Under Glass, it'll still enough to get you to push the coffee table out of the way, roll back the rug, and jitterbug (or two-step) in your stocking feet.
3 stars -- Jerry Renshaw
TREASURES LEFT BEHIND: REMEMBERING KATE WOLF
In 1986, at the age of 44, Kate Wolf died of leukemia. True to sad form, since her passing she now looms as a larger figure than she did during her lifetime. And during her lifetime, she wrote some of the most stirring folk music of any generation. For Treasures Left Behind, friends, peers, and simple admirers of Wolf have put together a collection worthy of her disarming melodies and earnest voice. And the players who lined up to contribute -- Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, John Gorka, Peter Rowan, Greg Brown, Kathy Mattea, Dave Alvin -- are testament enough to Wolf's songwriting abilities and appeal. More impressive than the mere lineup, though, are the actual performances. The autobiographical "See Here, She Said" takes on a new life in Utah Phillips' deep, thick voice. And, as if Lucinda Williams hasn't put out enough good work this year, her version of "Here in California" anchors the album and can pierce the thickest of emotional skin as easily as anything of her own. With contributions like that across the board, Treasures Left Behind would be a near flawless compilation if it weren't an even better tribute.
4 stars --Michael Bertin
ROCK AND ROLL DOCTOR: A TRIBUTE TO LOWELL GEORGE
What are tribute albums today except greatest hits covered by bands too young to be around the first time? Songwriting good enough to attract the likes of Randy Newman ("Sailing Shoes") 20 years after the fact -- now that's saying something. And despite the presence of where-are-they-now names like Eddie Money ("Rock and Roll Doctor"), no one who heard Little Feat's music doubts that frontman Lowell George, who died in 1979, is deserving of such honor. Like a West Coast version of Dire Straits, Little Feat were funk to the funky in the Seventies, and much in demand as session players. Small wonder that unlikely names like Taj Mahal ("Feats Don't Fail Me Now"), Chris Hillman & Jennifer Warnes ("Straight From the Heart"), the Bottle Rockets & David Lindley ("Rocket in My Pocket"), and Allen Toussaint & Leo Nocentelli ("Two Trains") stand up for George's music. The payoff for this ballad-heavy tribute is by Lowell's daughter Inara George, who closes with a tender "Trouble," and provides a soundbite of George. But there's one secret thing Rock and Roll Doctor does to make the heart of longtime fans dance: Artist Neon Park, whose whimsical paintings adorned Little Feat's albums for so many years, painted the cover for this one, too. Lowell George would be proud.
3 stars -- Margaret Moser
PEARLS IN THE SNOW: THE SONGS OF KINKY FRIEDMAN
As a Texas Jewboy, singer-songwriter, and murder/mystery author, Kinky Friedman has often wound up as his own best punchline. Yet people are quick to forget you don't get to be "the first full-blooded Jew to ever appear on the Grand Ol' Opry stage" without a few great songs. So now, Kinky's here to remind us -- with a self-designed tribute intended to champion his own overlooked tunes. And that it does, revealing a batch of songs that deftly ride the fine line between novelty and poignancy. Wisely, Friedman assigned the later variety to the A-List, handing Willie Nelson a Holocaust drama ("Ride 'em Jewboy"), Dwight Yoakam a breakup letter ("Rapid City, South Dakota"), and Lyle Lovett a careful study of cultural genocide ("Sold American"). It's surprisingly serious material, and each artist seems to take the songs and their delivery just as reverently as they would their own. Given that a lot of Friedman's comedic charm relies more on timing than the material itself, Asleep at the Wheel, the Geezinslaws, and Chuck E. Weiss also wind up handling their selections with equally genuine wit and grace. With three appearances from Kinky himself, nobody winds up adapting Friedman's material better than Tom Waits, who does more with a just a bit of banjo, violin, and truck noise than even most Waits diehards could have imagined. His take on "Highway Cafe" will leave you in tears and jonesin' for a corned beef on rye -- just like a good Kinky tribute should.
4 stars -- Andy Langer
GREAT JEWISH MUSIC: MARC BOLAN
Marc Bolan was Jewish? Who knew. Certainly avant-garde alto saxman and composer extraordinaire John Zorn and his label Tzadik are. And like most albums on the freethinking jazzman's culturally nurtured, intellectually outspoken imprint, Great Jewish Music: Marc Bolan is typically provocative -- unique, imaginative, sometimes even brilliant. Stitching together a boutique of sounds, from the stiff, lead-off lurch of guitarists Arto Lindsay and Marc Ribot ("Children of the Revolution"), through violinist Rebecca Moore's Prozac-laced come-on ("Telegram Sam"), and Kramer's studio-dweeb herky-jerk-off ("Get It On"), this 19-track space trip through Seventies glam makes Velvet Goldmine look like a documentary. The Melvins' stomping "Buick MacKane," Mike Patton's Fantomas side-project freakin' on "Chariot Choogle," and all manner of New York intelligensia studio plinking and plonking on Jeepster vehicles like "Ride the White Swan," "Rip-off," "Deboraarobed," and "Mambo Sun" contribute to the chaos. Things come back down to earth somewhat with Elysian Fields' sultry reading of "Life's a Gas" and Cake Like's muscled "Love Charm," but not before Buckethead's warp-speed guitar butchery cuts through "20th Century Boy" and Lloyd Cole gets weird on "Romany Soup." Bolan fan or no, Jew or gentile, Great Jewish Music might just make you a convert.
3.5 stars-- Raoul Hernandez
Miles A. Copeland III is no dummy. As the Police's manager, as well as older brother of the group's drummer Stewart Copeland, Miles not only gave the spikey blond-haired trio start-up capital, he sold A&M Records a song called "Roxanne." Two decades later, Copeland now runs the Ark 21 label, which has already released two volumes of reggae tribute to the Police (Regatta Mondatta, Vols 1 &2), as well as early material from the group, Stronium 90: Police Academy. Now comes a third tribute, Outlandos D'Americas:A Rock en Español Tribute to the Police, and while Copeland made reggae interpretations of the band's songs look like no-brainers -- Sting, Stewart, and guitarist Andy Summers were, after all, merely white punks playing ragga (Regatta de Blanc) -- enlisting "Rock en Español" bands to skank their way through the catalog is downright brilliant; there exist few more seminal bands in all of Latin America than the Police. Thus, Ekhmosis' moody, atmospheric "El Mensaje en la Botella" ("Message in a Bottle"), Enrique Bunbury's cabaret take on "El Tiempo Se Va" ("No Time Like This"), and Plastilina Mosh's hip-beat remix of "The Bed's Too Big Without You" do exactly what tributes call for: a recasting that recalls the song. Skank's lively "Estare Prendido en Tus Dedos" ("Wrapped Around Your Finger") is flat-out better than the original. While the album loses steam by CD's end, Outlandos D'America is still the best Police album since Synchronicity II.
3 stars -- Raoul Hernandez
FOR THE MASSES
Now that the mid-Eighties glory days of synth-goth grandfathers Depeche Mode have long since receded into the shadows of teen angst memory, Martin Gore, David Gahan, and whatsisname are set for a retrofitting in a groggy pop landscape that's all but given up on their gloomy black schtick. For the Masses, an eclectic and superior tribute disc, attests to the fact that no matter how many times the distressed and distressing Gahan tries to off himself, somebody out there still loves him, runny mascara and all. Smashing Pumpkins surprise with their sly, meditative take on "Never Let Me Down Again," while Germany's answer to aural eugenics, Rammstein, clobber the hell out of "Stripped." What's really kick-y about this disc are the unexpected gems that manage to improve on Gore's originals: Nina Gordon and Louise Post of Veruca Salt turn one of the most melancholic-yet-hopeful songs of the last decade, "Somebody," into a IV teardrop drip of uncut sorrow, Monster Magnet takes the phat axe to "Black Celebration," and Meat Beat Manifesto, of all people, make "Everything Counts" into a sample-laden gooferdust orgy. As a device, tribute CDs are almost always a wildly mixed bag. For the Masses is the exception that proves the rule, a dark, dank, improbably fun flashback to a time when nobody loved you and only DM understood.
3 stars -- Marc Savlov
Gershwin's World (Verve)
Gershwin's World was meant to appeal to a mass audience and it has, reaching the top of the jazz charts in November. Guests include Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Kathleen Battle, Wayne Shorter, and Chick Corea. Other participants are The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on the second movement of Gershwin's "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G" and "Lullabye," saxmen Kenny Garrett and James Carter, and percussionists from Africa and Brazil. Not all of the tunes here are by Gershwin, whose 100th birthday Verve is trying to cash in on. James P. Johnson's "Blueberry Rhyme" is performed as a Hancock/Corea duet. Johnson was, like Gershwin, a ragtime pianist, credited as one of the founders of stride, and an ambitious composer. Gershwin contemporary Duke Ellington's "Cotton Tail" is included because it's based on the chord changes of George's "I Got Rhythm." With big names on it and a lot of publicity, it's not surprising this album's selling, but it's substantive as well. There's fine improvisation here by Hancock and Shorter, and Mitchell and Wonder perform with taste, intelligence, and inspiration. This doesn't have the significance of Hancock's Blue Note stuff or his work with Miles Davis, but given the fact that it's aimed at pop as well as jazz fans, is surprisingly good.
3 stars -- Harvey Pekar
The Joy of Joplin (Sony Classical)
It's amazing what one man can do with 88 keys, particularly if that man is Marcus Roberts. Scott Joplin made pretty good work of them too, and for his latest tribute, Roberts has turned his attention to the ragtime man. While this album is clearly awash in Joplin -- nine of the 16 tunes are Joplin compositions, the other seven inspired by him -- the rudiments of rag are only a jumping-off point for the remarkable talents of Roberts, who is nothing short of divine here. Ragtime has always been about rhythm, but Roberts takes it to another level, turning standard meter on its head, his left and right hand in concert and completely independent of each other. Not a song goes by without a jaw-dropping line (or two or 10), folded in with delicate melodies and that stately air familiar to ragtime tunes. Roberts' stated purpose is exploring the roots of jazz, and while this album does have a historical, almost academic, slant to it, Roberts never fails to forget the sense of play that is universal to Joplin's work.
4 stars -- Jay Hardwig