Ed. note: The other
day, upon consultation with longtime BLURT contributor Steven Rosen, who has
frequently and eloquently covered the tribute album oeuvre for us, I realized
that maybe I’d been too much of a Grinch in the past, what with my longstanding
conviction – expressed often, and using colorful language – that tribs are
vanity projects serving the contributors and the compilers, not the actual fans
and certainly not the artists purportedly being memorialized. With my small,
constricted editorial heart duly growing three sizes that day, I pledged two
things: (1) to give the new Fleetwood Mac project a fair listen; and (2) to let
him do likewise, then publish at our website his assessment. As to (1), I
should say as a longtime Fleetwood Mac fan… well, I should say this elsewhere,
which I did yesterday; and as to (2), the results are below, and as usual, Dr. Rosen
has demonstrated a keen ability to get to the heart of what it actually means
to create and consume a tribute album while probing the essential qualities of
the original music in order to discern why it may have been worthy of a tribute
in the first place. Coming next: Rosen’s equally measured comments on that new
Nick Lowe country-music tribute, due in September.
By Steven Rosen
If there’s a commercial market for tribute albums in 2012,
it’s probably in Starbucks franchises, where the records stare at you from
their display in front of the cash register and play over the sound system
whenever you walk in – which is daily,
if you’re like most people. No record store can top that kind of exposure.
That helps explain Just
Tell Me That You Want Me: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac (Hear Music) as a business venture for Starbucks, which owns
Hear Music with the Concord Music Group. (The record will be for sale at other
outlets, too.) The tribute subject is an enticing sell to Boomers, who still
buy CDs, and the contributors include both younger, alternative acts (Antony, Lykke Li, St. Vincent,
the Kills, MGMT) and a few older, artier types (Lee Ranaldo, Marianne
Faithfull, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy). In both cases, their key following is among
urban hipsters and college students, exactly the groups Starbucks covets.
Having said that, the execution of this project is anything
but cynical. Randall Poster, the film music supervisor who assembled the
inspired I’m Not There” soundtrack
for Todd Haynes’ cinematic meditation on Dylan, shepherded this project with
Gelya Robb. And like their 2011 project, Rave
On Buddy Holly, they have convinced a lot of musical tastemakers to
participate and given them room to be creative.
This is thus certainly better than 1998’s Legacy: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours.’. And it’s better than Poster’s and Robb’s Buddy
Holly in one regard – the most famous veteran on that project, Paul
McCartney, gave the album’s most grating cover version, of “It’s So Easy.”
Here, the reigning elder, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons – joined by Matt Sweeney and
Blake Mills – gives the best, a slowed-down and deeply wiry, snarling and
hypnotic take on Peter Green’s guitar rave-up “Oh Well.” He transforms it into
something played well after midnight in a Delta juke joint; it’s performed and
sung as John Lee Hooker would have done it in about 1950.
Poster and Robb make a point of crediting all the members of
Fleetwood Mac, from the band’s roots as a late-1960s British blues act to its
glory years as an L.A.-based singer-songwriter pop-rock act (and beyond). But
in actuality, with an important exception
or two, the album comes down to Green vs. Stevie Nicks.
They are the band’s great male and female archetypes. Green,
the guitarist with the otherworldly bending, sinewy tone and songs with cosmically
searching lyrics to match, is the LSD-fueled mystical 1960s guitar god. Nicks,
with her introspective, atmospheric songs infused with references to the
elements, is the sensual Gaia goddess. If only they could have recorded
together – but Green left in 1970 (and has since battled schizophrenia) while
Nicks arrived in 1975. But they are, to quote from Green’s “The Green
Manalishi,” Fleetwood Mac’s “two-prong crown.”
Green only gets three tracks here (a fourth, “Green
Manalishi” by the Entrance Band, will be available as a bonus in some form),
but “Oh Well” and the spooky instrumental “Albatross” – here interpreted with
spare but effective guitar experimentation by Ranaldo and J Mascis – are clear
album highlights. The third, regrettably, is a dud – “Before the Beginning” is belted out in a
borderline-overwrought version by Trixie Whitley, daughter of the late Chris.
(Marc Ribot, however, provides nice guitar work.)
Nicks, on the other hand, gets 10 of the album’s 17 songs.
With that many, given the law of odds on tribute albums, some just aren’t going
to work – Antony’s
“Landslide” sounds strained; Karen Elson is too bland a singer to bring much to
“Gold Dust Woman,” despite Beck’s haunting production touches. But Bonnie
‘Prince’ Billy (Will Oldham) reaching, soulful vocal on “Storms” – like a
ragged Stephen Stills stripped of all CSN slickness – is outstanding. (Sweeney
So, too, are contributions from Faithfull (“Angel”) and
Lykke Li (“Silver Springs”).
Faithfull, whose low and smoky voice is beautifully suited
for Nicks’ songs, slowly lets her two great guitarists, Ribot and Bill Frisell,
and vibraphonist Kenny Wollensen take over “Angel” for an elegiac ending that
seems to promenade out of the speakers. And Lykke Li’s use of dramatic echo and
reverb makes “Silver Springs” a worthy companion to her own “Silence is a
reinvention of Nicks’ best-known composition, “Rhiannon,” deserves credit for
gumption. It turns this eerie mood
piece into a jangly, bouncy, piano-driven pop tune that is closer to Captain & Tennille than Fleetwood Mac. It’s
irresistible on its own terms, but a song like this can’t really exist on its
own terms. Without the original’s probes, jabs and jumps into the darkness of
our subconscious, the song has no meaning.
Mac’s other principal female singer-songwriter, Christine
McVie, gets but one selection, a nothing-special turn at “Think About Me” by
New Pornographers. Lindsay Buckingham gets two – Australian band Tame Impala’s
spacey “That’s All for Everyone” and the Crystal Ark’s (Gavin Russom) catchy
dance-elctronica take on “Tusk.” (McVie’s “Hold On,” by HAIM, is a promised
bonus track that’s already streaming on the Internet.)
Two other important Mac members, Danny Kirwan and Jeremy Spencer,
are totally absent. But a third, Bob Welch -who just died in June – gets his
due here, even if it’s for just one song. The guitarist/songwriter was with the
band for just three years (1971-1974) and five albums, but was key in moving
the band away from Green’s bluesy rock (and England)
and toward Nicks and Buckingham (and America). His “Hypnotized,” one of
Fleetwood Mac’s best songs ever, would have been a highlight if included here.
It isn’t, but MGMT does “Future Games” proud with a long, alluringly textured,
voice-altered version to close things out.
This tribute album isn’t strong enough to be awarded its own
two-prong crown (the Fleetwood Mac equivalent of 10 stars), but it’s got enough
surprises and excitement to keep the genre interesting.