RETURN OF THE GRIEVOUS ANGEL
A Tribute to Gram Parsons (Almo)
Like Gram Parsons himself, tributes to the rich Southern wastrel with a gift for country music and songwriting are all but doomed. "We hired a piano player," Roger McGuinn is quoted in the liner notes to Return of the Grievous Angel. "And he turned out to be Parsons ... a monster in sheep's clothing. And he exploded out of his sheep's clothing -- God! It's George Jones! In a big sequin suit!" Nudie suit actually -- later, anyway -- embroidered with marijuana leaves and roses. What every hellraisin' No Depression band worth its copy of George Jones Salutes Hank Williams (as opposed to Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd) has tried to be and embody in the latter half of the Nineties. Case in point is Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams taking on his hero's "A Song for You"and delivering an "interpretation" that's faithful to the point of redundancy. Wilco's uptempo reworking of Sweetheart of the Rodeo's "One Hundred Years From Now": toss-off. Beck and Evan Dando? Not in their wildest dreams, particularly golden boy Hansen, whose duet with Parsons' real Grievous Angel, Emmylou Harris, on "Sin City," from the Flying Burrito Bros.' priceless alt.country debut, Gilded Palace of Sin (1969), falls as flat as Gram Parsons' own fragile tenor often did. The Rolling Creekdippers' (Victoria Williams, Mark Olson, Buddy & Julie Miller, Jim Lauderdale) butchering of Parsons' self-penned posthumous epitaph, "In My Hour of Darkness" -- ill-fated. Considering Emmylou is this tribute's executive producer, it's probably no coincidence that the shes succeed where the hes fail: Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders ("She"), Margo Timmons and the Cowboy Junkies ("Ooh Las Vegas"), Sheryl Crow & Harris ("Juanita"), Gillian Welch & David Rawlins ("Hickory Wind"), and the undisputed belle of the ball, Lucinda Williams ("Return of the Grievous Angel"). Still, do any songs besides Chrissie and Lu's capture the druggy Seventies country soul of Parsons' solo twofer G.P./Grievous Angel -- unveil the mythic monster wolf in George Jones' clothing? Not a one.
2 stars--Raoul Hernandez
Greenwich Village in the Sixties (Astor Place)
Sometimes tribute albums serve as little more than a collection of greatest non-hits from an era or genre. That's easily the case with Bleecker Street, a 16-song collection of tunes from the Sixties folkies in New York's Greenwich Village heyday. That deceptively simple description covers a complex and diverse number of performers from that period, as well as an equally diverse and complex group that pays tribute to them. To say that the music of the day was merely a combination of folkie naivete and youthful rebellion is to deny the spirit and sense of purpose at its core. This music meant something, carrying on the tradition of American folk with its English and Celtic roots, and that may be the reason for its enduring appeal. Several of the songs here were re-recorded with greater success by other artists; Ron Sexsmith sings "Reason to Believe," originally performed by Tim Hardin, though most will reference Rod Stewart's version. Likewise, Chrissie Hynde's "Morning Glory" was Tim Buckley's, though Linda Ronstadt made it more popular. Paul Brady's "Let's Get Together" is the only genuine hit single in the bunch, sung by Dino Valenti, but recorded by the Youngbloods. Curiously, Joan Baez is omitted from the lineup in favor of also-rans like Buzzy Linhart, but when Bleecker Street is good, it's very, very good, dusting off treasures from Eric Anderson and Tom Paxton via John Gorka and "Cry Cry Cry." "So Long, Marianne" by Leonard Cohen is elegantly interpreted by John Cale and Suzanne Vega, while Larry Kirwan & Black 47 infuse Phil Ochs' "I Ain't Marching Anymore" with appropriate rebellious fervor. "Pack Up All Your Troubles," by Loudon Wainwright III and Iris DeMent, recalls the original version by Richard & Mimi Farina with panache, but Jules Shear's "Darling Be Home Soon" is a sweet, unremarkable take on John Sebastian's achingly lovely ballad. Still, it's in Marshall Crenshaw's rendition of Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages" that the bittersweet truth comes alive: "Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."
2.5 stars--Margaret Moser
THIS NOTE'S FOR YOU TOO!
A Tribute to Neil Young
This tribute to Canada's foremost contributor to American rock music, which was originated by a fan club in the Netherlands, is a chronologically ordered anthology of tunes dating back to Neil Young's 1963 Squires debut "Aurora." From there to "Piece of Crap," artfully rendered by Denton's Slobberbone, this 2-CD set is all over the place. Some of it is really good, like Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo doing a bare-bones, fuzzed-out take of "Winterlong," and Hallo Venray's stark "Cortez the Killer." The vast majority of the songs on this incredibly ambitious 37-song collection, however, are done by roots-rock artists or bands that aren't taking many chances with the songs at hand. For the most part, that's not a bad thing. What this collection lacks in original, innovative interpretations, it makes up for in obvious reverence and appreciation for Young's talent and vision; the acts herein will be mostly unknown to Yank listeners, but their renditions embody the spirit of a band doing a favorite cover. A few gripes: "Running Dry," a piano song by Shane Faubert, is painfully lame; Matt Piucci's falsetto on "Down to the Wire" would make even Neil wince; and Chris Burroughs' "Powderfinger" sounds a little too much like Elton John joined an alt.country band. Worst of all, there's one measly song off Ragged Glory, and it's "Days That Used to Be" -- not even a good one -- by a Dutch folkie named Ad Vanderveen. Beyond that, this is a well-done, heartfelt tribute to a rock & roll artist who, unlike vast numbers of his peers, keeps getting better with age.
3 stars--Christopher Hess
MARVIN IS 60: A TRIBUTE ALBUM
On tribute albums where nobody takes chances, everyone gets hurt, especially when one of two available configurations offers a companion CD of the original tunes. With or without an extra disc of classic Marvin Gaye, this tribute disc's deficiencies are painfully obvious: Everybody seems to value the free studio time more than the opportunity to interpret the source material. And it's too bad, because the lineup reads like modern soul's A-list: Brian McKnight and Montell Jordan to Gerald Levert and Kenny Lattimore. Unfortunately, too many play it way too safe, and virtually everyone here seems to have taken the occasion of what would have been Gaye's 60th birthday to pay tribute not to legendary soul singer but to the drum machine. "Programmers" and overzealous keyboard players rule the roost here, every time to the detriment of both the singer and the original tune's passion. The two exceptions, in the only stroke of production genius on Marvin Is 60, are the two duets that bookend the album: Erykah Badu and D'Angelo's take on "Your Precious Love" and Grenique and Tony Rich's reading of "If This World Were Mine." Both were originally collaborations between Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and their contemporary equivalents here feature equally stunning give-and-take. Two songs don't make a tribute though, and interestingly enough, what's sorely missing is any hip-hop. On the last Gaye tribute, 1995's Inner City Blues, Speech and Digable Planets stole the show from heavy hitters like Bono, Stevie Wonder, Madonna, and Boyz II Men. Wyclef Jean taking on "What's Going On" and Lil Kim's take on "Let's Get It On" might well have wound up as train wrecks, but at least they would have been different. Instead, Marvin is 60 only proves once again that sometimes the best tribute is no tribute at all.
1.5 stars--Andy Langer
A TRIBUTE TO MUDDY WATERS -- KING OF THE BLUES
The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., is a long way from the raucous juke joints of Chicago's South Side, let alone from the front porch of the wooden sharecropper shack on Stovall's plantation outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi, where McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters) made his first recordings for the Library of Congress in 1941. A celebration of Waters' indelible music was held at the Kennedy Center in October 1977, with the highlights of that evening comprising this album. Like most endeavors of this sort, the results leave you with the feeling that you had to have been there to have more thoroughly appreciated both the music and the vibe. Nevertheless, there are enough solid performances of Waters' songs from the likes of Keb' Mo', Buddy Guy, KoKo Taylor, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Mem Shannon, John Hiatt, and Muddy's son, Bill Morganfield, to recommend a listen. Interestingly, the album is bookended with "Trouble No More" and "Got My Mojo Workin,'" both classic Chess recordings by Waters himself that set the Gold Standard for Chicago Blues in general and certainly for this set in particular. "Trouble" is followed by a round of verbal tributes by various musicians and is a nice lead into the live music that begins with perhaps the best concert track on the album, Keb' Mo's performance of "I Can't Be Satisfied," a tune recorded by Waters at Stovall's in 1941. The most blatant mismatch here is Phoebe Snow's rather stilted reading of "Just To Be With You," a song Waters injected with ferocious intensity. Of the backup musicians here, Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica is the most prominent, doing a terrific job providing the key element of Waters' signature group sound à la Little Walter. Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson also shines, but is featured only sparingly. This event may not have resulted in the best blues album you'll ever hear, but it's always heartening when the nation's arbiters of high arts and culture recognize the extraordinary contributions to the American popular cultural fabric made by "folk artists" like Muddy Waters.
2.5 stars--Jay Trachtenberg
BLUES POWER -- SONGS OF ERIC CLAPTON
(House of Blues)
While it offers no proof to the contrary, Blues Power -- Songs of Eric Clapton loudly proclaims "This Ain't No Tribute!" in boldfaced letters on its cover. Since the label's name is displayed no fewer than three times, it's clear this non-tribute really celebrates its label House of Blues' self-promotion. Clapton's best-known numbers are covered, from "Lay Down Sally" to "Tears in Heaven," while the acts enlisted run the gamut from blues diva KoKo Taylor to guitar lion Eric Gales. Pairings such as Buddy Guy and "Strange Brew" sound ideal, but in practice, this cut doesn't measure up its potential. No smoking fret journeys by the master, and no drastic reinterpretation of the composition. And since the psychedelic-rock number is a staple from Guy's live set, it must have been an uninspired day in the studio. With a few exceptions, the remaining tracks are the same: potential unfulfilled. There are notable exceptions, such as Chicago living legend James "Honeyboy" Edwards and harp master James Cotton making "Crossroads," Robert Johnson's Faustian tale of personal transition, come alive. Same with Bo Diddley jivin' up his own "Before You Accuse Me." Die hard Clapton fans, get out your wallets. Everyone else, seek the blues source: Mance Lipscomb, Sunnyland Slim, Bo Diddley, Honeyboy Edwards, Pinetop Perkins.
2 stars--David Lynch
HERE, THERE & EVERYWHERE: THE SONGS OF THE BEATLES
If Sir George Martin's 1998 In My Life compilation of celebrities attempting to sing the Beatles' hits can be credited with bringing back the lost concept of the "Golden Throat" album, then the Windham Hill label here deserves equal points for the rebirth of that other reviled Sixties-Seventies notion, "elevator music." However, while even Lennon and McCartney's strongest melodies were no match for the double-barreled assault of pretension from Robin Williams and Bobby McFerrin on Martin's arrangement of "Come Together," nor Sean Connery's "Shatner with a speech impediment" reading of his title track, on Here, There & Everywhere the former moptops' tunes get an even chance for survival. Hell, one reason that everybody still knows the Beatles' music is because you may not listen to the radio, and you may not buy records, but everybody's gotta shop sometime! Here are the renditions of the Fab Four the way you remember them from when you last picked up a box of Fab, as performed by Windham Hill snoozer stalwarts like Liz Story, George Winston, and the legendary W.G. "Snuffy" Walden. It's all familiar tunes arranged in relaxing ways, and needless to say, George "the quiet one" Harrison gets a higher percentage of credits here than on any real Beatles album, so what else did you expect? There's only one sad omission: Nobody here covers the foursome's song that ultimately defines this album -- "I'm Only Sleeping."
2 stars--Ken Lieck
UNSEALED: A TRIBUTE TO THE GO-GO'S
For a tribute to the Go-Go's, Unsealed is awfully heavy on the testosterone. And for some reason, almost everyone feels compelled to slow down the L.A. New Wave princesses' brisk tempos. No Muffs, no Donnas, no Deal sisters, no L7. Instead there's Fig Dish making like a grungy Depeche Mode on "Head Over Heels" and the Chainsaw Kittens plodding through "We Got the Beat" before grafting on a verse of Iggy Pop's "Nightclubbing" at the end. Season to Risk contributes a gloomy "This Town" that would be more at home on a Bauhaus tribute, and anyone attempting to water ski to Sunset Valley's take on "Automatic" would likely become the victim of a boating accident. Truly's version of "Our Lips Are Sealed" is almost up to speed -- and even has female vocals -- but the Kiss Offs could have done better. On the brighter side, the Pinehurst Kids kick in a stiff "How Much More," femme-fronted Sugarsmack hits the mark on "Turn to You," and Austin's bo bud greene rollicks through a toe-tapping "This Old Feeling." Milwaukee's inimitable Frogs, God love 'em, splice a vintage Valley Girl "What-ever!" around a children's choir and a Monkee-like chorus on a suitably discomfiting "Vacation." And if you long for a Go-Go's medley built around sitar and drum machine, pine no more thanks to Allon Beausoleil. But no Shindigs? Puh-leeze!
2.5 stars--Christopher Gray
THE CLASH TRIBUTE: BURNING LONDON
If anyone ever really needed a reason to smack Greg Dulli in the kisser, then the Afghan Whigs' limp retread of "Lost in the Supermarket" is it. Tribute CDs are scattershot things at best; at worst they can make you realize just how tired the current crop of "alternative" bands really is. Out of the 12 tracks on Burning London, a paltry three stand up to repeated listenings, with the others serving as glaring, thoroughly unnecessary reminders that the Clash was a once-in-a-lifetime riot. No Mick, Joe, Paul, and Topper means no Clash, and try as they might, the contributing artists here fail to pack much more of a punk rawk wallop than Tim "Lint" Armstrong tumbling about in a clothes dryer. Speaking of Lint, Rancid's cover of "Cheat" is one of the three gooduns here, a tough, tight four-tracker that manages to hold on to the original's bluster while adding Armstrong's distinct East Bay aural shenanigans. Likewise, No Doubt, of all people, managed to corral Billy "What Have I Done for You Lately?" Idol to sing backup on "Hateful," and their uppity pop-punk-ska matches up well to the original, as does the Mighty Mighty Bosstones' cover of "Rudie Can't Fail." But, as AC/DC (or somebody) once said, "You want shit? You got shit." The Urge turns "This Is Radio Clash" into a fool's pajama party, Ice Cube and Mack 10 just don't get the joke on "Should I Stay or Should I Go?," and Third Eye Blind -- who shouldn't even be on any CD even tangentially related to Punk Rawk, for God's sake -- mangle "Train in Vain" so badly that it was all I could do not to jam fistfuls of old MaximumRocknRolls into my ears to block out the horror. Bad tribute, no lager!
1 star--Marc Savlov
PUNK'S NOT DEAD: A TRIBUTE TO THE EXPLOITED
The Exploited, as fronted by finhead Wattie, was a stumblebum Eighties hardcore band best suited for listening in a squalid apartment, on a junk stereo, while smashed on the cheapest beer available. Sound familiar? This tribute compilation brings together several latter-day punk snotnoses like Billyclub, US Chaos, Road Rage, and Blanks 77 for some high-speed blasts of the Exploited's Britpunk noise. If anything, however, this stuff sounds better than the Exploited did back in '82, owing to better playing, better production, and better mastering. The Bruisers add a metal edge to "SPG," Road Rage lays down a massive slab of guitar on "Alternative," and I.C.U. gives an incongruously snottier treatment to "Dead Cities." All are faithful renditions of Exploited songs, with the same bonehead agitpunk-anarchy lyrics, tuneless vocal snarls, and paddle-beat drums flailing away like a duck trying to swim at 90 mph. About the only stinker is Special Duties' version of "Sid Vicious Was Innocent," the familiar sound of a band playing at breakneck speed and desperately trying to keep up with each other. So, if this is the kind of thing you're still into, grab this CD, go to a pawnshop and buy a really crappy jambox to listen to it on, glug down a six of Schaefer, and go snap off some car antennas. It ought to bring back a lager-sodden memory or two of thrashing bodies and flying Doc Martens.
2.5 stars--Jerry Renshaw
THE DIXIE HUMMINGBIRDS
Music in the Air: 70th Anniversary Celebration (House of Blues)
"Hello, this is Isaac Hayes," says the Scientologist better known these days as South Park's Chef. "In the beginning, after the Word, before rock & roll, and before there was rap, hip-hop, disco, punk, funk, metal, soul, Motown, rockabilly, country & western, before bebop, doo-wop, and the big-band swing, there was the Dixie Hummingbirds. The mighty Dixie Hummingbirds. They've sung through the Great Depression, the terms of 13 presidents, four major wars, five generations of Americans, and seven decades of the 20th century." The Hummingbirds formed in Greenville, South Carolina, in the heyday of Gertrude Stein, Al Jolson, and Prohibition. The Boston Red Sox were only a decade removed from their 1918 World Series triumph -- still their most recent championship. Could there be a more fitting title than "The Iron Men of Gospel"? Or an ensemble more worthy of veneration? Maybe the Blind Boys of Alabama or Preservation Hall Jazz Band -- but 70 years. Compared to that, even Austin institutions the Bells of Joy look like the children's choir. And it's no wonder musical heavy hitters from both the studio (Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon reprising "Loves Me Like a Rock," Wynonna Judd, Bobby Womack) and the sanctuary (Deniece Williams, Mavis Staples, Vicki Winans, Shirley Caesar) are on hand to pay their respects. In a way, the Hummingbirds represent the rock upon which everything else that came after was built. Even the most unbelieving of heathens knows (or should) the deepest roots of American music dig into sacred ground. Gospel charts spirituality's extremes, the desolation of estrangement from God and the exuberance of reconciliation, sometimes in the same song (for example "Certainly Lord"). Other times it's only about celebrating that eventual summons to the promised land, as on "Slow Moving Train." The meditative, waltz-time "Come Ye Disconsolate" and "I Need Thee" are deliberate, beseeching demonstrations of faith, marked by virtuosic solos from guests Williams and Staples; "Praise Him" and "Jesus Is Still Alive" defy the listener not to clap along and testify to the rafters. Wonder's own "Have a Talk With God" is deliciously, almost salaciously, funky without sacrificing a hint of taut gospel snap, but the true driving force behind Music in the Air is lead Hummingbird Ira Tucker Sr.'s -- who joined the group at age 13 in 1938 -- commanding baritone. This album succeeds where most of the others on these pages fail because gospel music is in itself a tribute -- to God, certainly, but also to human qualities such as faith, joy, and perseverence. In the Dixie Hummingbirds' case, that's 70 years' worth of faith, joy, and perseverance. So can we have a little church now? As Hayes himself might say, "Damn right!"
4 stars--Christopher Gray