HOMAGE OR FROMAGE? Tribute Albums

In
which we pay tribute to, er, tribute albums.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

Is there any more maligned
recorded-music genre than the tribute album?

 

And why not? Critics rightly slag
it for succumbing to such banal marketing gimmicks as the bluegrassy Pickin’ On Counting
Crows,  Reggae Tribute to the
Police,  String Quartet Tribute to Queen,
Country Music Tribute to Bruce Springsteen
and ad nauseam. Are they
really “tributes,” or just exploitations of a salable name?

 

But not so fast. There are still
other, more genuinely motivated tribute albums constantly being released. They
are often dedicated to musicians too low-profile (or too dead) to even have an
active bin in many stores, certainly not at most Wal-Marts or Target. For instance,
Keep Your Soul: A
Tribute to Doug Sahm
arrived in late March, while April brought Love
Takes This Course: A Tribute to the Songs of Kath Bloom.
And in May there
were two high-profile tributes: Townes, Steve Earle’s
15-song set of songs by mentor Townes Van Zandt, including “Colorado Girl” and
“Pancho and Lefty”; and Man
of Somebody’s Dreams: A Tribute to Chris Gaffney
,
a labor of love for
Dave Alvin, who produced and compiled it to honor his late friend (Gaffney died
last year) and fellow Americana musician.

 

Overall, tribute albums have become
one of the most vitally original and inventive contributions of the rock
generation(s) to the legacy of recorded music. They stress that
singer-songwriters – another rock-generation contribution – are indeed songwriters,
worthy of constant interpretation and reinvention.

 

This is risky, since too often
cover versions don’t measure up. But it’s a worthwhile effort – it keeps music
from getting old and dying, even if the writers eventually must.

 

Writers like Neil Young, Leonard
Cohen and Dylan have all had multiple tributes, and probably will keep doing
so. Meanwhile, tributes also are exploring the work of older pre-rock
influences on contemporary writers, from the Louvin Brothers to Mississippi
John Hurt to Jimmy Rodgers. And there are cheekily inventive, unclassifiable
releases, like the recent Switched
on Bob: A Tribute to Bob Moog
.

 

This process is how today’s culture
tries to decide its standards – just as Broadway revues and Hollywood
musicals, and their endless revivals, were showcases for the Irving Berlins and
Cole Porters.

 

Tributes also are often a way for
scrappy indie labels to have a voice in the ongoing shaping of pop-music
legacy. Such labels frequently resort to tributes, since they don’t involve
signing acts to long-term contracts.

 

“If a song can be stripped down to
a guitar and vocals and still move you, it’s a great song,” says Joseph
Spadaro, president of Connecticut’s
American Laundromat Records, which this year released, as a fund-raising
benefit, Just Like Heaven: A Tribute to the Cure, with the Wedding
Present, Dean & Britta and Tanya Donelly. “In the 1980s, when songs had all
these synthesizers, it was hard to tell.”

 

 

Maybe of most value, tribute albums
help rescue overlooked songwriters of all genres. In the 1990s, the Sweet
Relief
tributes helped elevate the careers of Victoria Williams and Vic
Chesnutt, for instance. An upcoming tribute will honor Mark Mulcahy, a Boston singer-songwriter
(formerly of Miracle Legion) who is little known nationally but whose devotees
include Michael Stipe, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and High Fidelity writer
Nick Hornby.

 

And Kath Bloom hopes the recent Love Takes This Course tribute – a double-CD set that pairs her original versions with covers – helps
her. She has written and recorded lovely and literate, often-melancholy
folk-rock tunes since the 1980s, with little pop-cultural attention other than
inclusion of the song “Come Here” in a key scene of Richard Linklater’s film Before
Sunrise.
The tribute features, among others, Devendra Banhart, Mia Doi Todd, Mark
Kozelek, and the Concretes.

 

“If there’s any ploy in this whole
thing, it’s to get fans of these people to check out my music,” says the
Connecticut-based Bloom, who recently completed a West Coast tour to promote
the album. “That’s a way to say that they will bring in people who don’t know
what they like until they hear it.”

 

Mia Doi Todd, the Los Angeles-based
singer-songwriter who contributes “Ready or Not” to the Bloom tribute, says
this: “Kath Bloom is an amazing songwriter.  Many people have not had the
chance to hear her songs. For those of us who participated, many of us
songwriters ourselves, it was a chance to get inside her frame of mind and
breathe on the fire.  Songs need to be played to stay alive.”

 

Tribute albums are perfect, really, for
our society’s new emphasis on sustainability. They sustain songs and careers in
a too-often disposable pop culture.

 

Pictured above,
L-R: Townes Van Zandt, Kath Bloom, Mark Mulcahy.

 

[To
read reviews of some of the tributes referenced in the above article, just
click on the provided links.
]

 

 

 

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