A PRECARIOUS BALANCE The Buddy Holly Tribute Album

Snap! As one might
expect, the new Holly project has a handful of good tunes. Likewise, it falls
prey to the usual trib-album gimmickry and pointless remakes.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

The advance buzz on tribute album Rave On Buddy Holly (Fantasy Records) is all about Paul McCartney’s
contribution, in which the 69-year-old ex-Beatle rants, shouts and growls his
way through a madly goosed-up version, complete with false endings, of “It’s So
Easy.” Rolling Stone has described
the approach as “He yowls like he popped some Viagra and then set his pants on
fire.”

 

But is that a good thing? While one appreciates the effort
and the autobiographical themes of his contribution – McCartney, whose Beatles
cued off Holly’s Crickets for their name, is engaged to be married for the
third time, proving that indeed it is easy for him to fall in love – and while
the song itself has that kind of crackling, electric arrangement (live-sounding
lead guitar upfront, ever-so-slightly-weird processed backing vocals) of
late-1960s Beatles, the novelty of McCartney’s vocal embellishments wears off
quickly and becomes annoying. In short, it’s a gimmick.

 

This rock-oriented Holly tribute (an earlier one, called Not Fade Away, was
country/alt-county-oriented) was produced by Randall Poster, the imaginative
music supervisor for the movies I’m Not
There, Velvet Goldmine, Rushmore
and countless others. That explains the
eclecticism of the line-up, a mix of the hippest of alt-rock acts (Black Keys,
Florence + the Machine, Jenny O., Modest Mouse) and the heritage rockers who
influenced them (McCartney, Nick Lowe, Patti Smith, Lou Reed) plus a few
left-field choices (Kid Rock, Graham Nash, Cee Lo Green) to keep things fresh.

 

But it still doesn’t resolve the pitfalls of tribute albums.
With an act whose songs are as familiar as Holly’s, and whose streamlined,
heartfelt rock ‘n’ roll is so timeless and direct, you can either be faithful
to the original version and risk redundancy, or try something different and
risk pretension. Further, the self-consciousness of so many post-modern
alt/indie rock bands just gets in the way of the sublime illumination of
Holly’s best work.

 

Modest Mouse’s muddling deconstruction of “That’ll Be the
Day” proves the point, as does Florence + the Machine’s soulless “Not Fade
Away,” which sounds like a bunch of random instruments, plus probing voice, in
search of a clever arrangement. That’s a particularly inappropriate song to
mess up, too – after all these years, the best Holly cover of all is still the
Rolling Stones’ 1964 “Not Fade Away,” which found the bluesy Bo Diddley-isms
beneath the original’s chirpy arrangement and toughened the song up.

 

Yet, good cover versions can redefine a song, giving it new
life and deeper meaning. There are several here, as the law of averages
dictates there should be with 19 contributions. Foremost is Patti Smith’s take on
“Word of Love,” a sweet almost-ballad that is one of Hollywood’s prettiest
songs. Smith, who somewhere along the aging process has evolved from punk
priestess to one of rock ‘n’ roll’s wisest tribal elders, gives it an ethereal,
modal, drone-like arrangement, her deep voice cushioned by angelic backing
harmonies. She quotes from the Shangri-las’ “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” toward
the end. Really, she infuses the song it with her own words of love – the ideal
of a great cover version.

 

Another excellent contribution – “Peggy Sue Got Married” –
is provided by John Doe, who seems to have found his strength in post-punk
folk-rock/alt-country. His slightly grungy guitar provides texture to the song,
which starts off stately and builds in dynamism without ever sacrificing
melody. Like Dave Alvin, whose success seems to be giving Doe confidence to
pursue the same kind of weathered Americana sound, his voice has grown from a
youthful monotone to one that’s full of confident rusticity.

 

Add some other good if not revelatory versions – Black Keys’
“Dearest,” Karen Elson’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” Justin Townes Earle’s
“Maybe Baby,” My Morning Jacket’s “True Love Ways,” Kid
Rock-as-the-new-Mellencamp on “Well All Right,” and you have an album that on
balance is worth the effort it took to produce.

 

But it’s a precarious balance.

 

Here’s the real Buddy Holly…

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