The singer-songwriter oeuvre is explored on a raft of recent tribs. Under the lens: Nick Drake, Tim Hardin, the Everly Brothers, John Denver and Ron Davies.
BY STEVEN ROSEN
Although tribute albums were predicted to be a passing folly when they became ubiquitous in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it increasingly looks like they will be the last physical records playing.
There’s a simple commercial reason – they’re conceptual, and thus have a decent chance of appealing to people who still buy CDs rather than download individual songs. Also, increasingly, they are “legacy” projects with genuine feeling behind them – honoring rock-and-roots recording artists who are no longer with us.
As such, they become a way for younger, up-and-coming musicians to honor the Boomer forbearers who influenced them – especially those who were cult figures or were disparaged by the critical establishment of their day. There also are Boomers behind some projects, trying to pay respects to departed friends.
When tribute albums were at their peak in the 1990s and early 2000s, they were more a sales gimmick to associate new music – often by second- and third-rate acts – with classic-rock superstars like Tom Petty, Led Zeppelin and the Stones. It got pretty cynical.
So tribute albums today more often seem to have more honest intentions than the ones released during the genre’s commercial peak. That doesn’t mean, however, they’re universally across-the-board better. As ever, not all interpretations have inspiration. Some are so respectful as to bore; other times, some are pretentious radical reworkings that fail to communicate enough respect. Also, sometimes, the source material is just weak.
Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake
StorySound Records (www.storysoundrecords.com)
8 stars (out of 10)
The recordings of Nick Drake, the fragile British singer-songwriter who died in 1974 at age 26, are like cinders floating up from a campfire. They are definitely real, each one packing heat, strength and resilience. But they’re also illusory, a touch of light and warmth that you know can’t last. You admire their beauty, but they also increase your loneliness when they fade out into the blackness. So you remember their impact long afterward.
Joe Boyd, the American-born producer of the first two of Drake’s three albums (and his chief supporter), did as much as anyone to join traditional British folk with rock-informed singer-songwriting through his Witchseason Productions and his work with Fairport Convention and Incredible String Band. And he wrote about it all in 2006’s White Bicycles.
As an offshoot of that, he organized tribute concerts for Drake in Britain, Australia and Italy. This album, released by a Manhattan-based label, selects 15 performances from those shows. Other than brief applause at the very end, you’d never know these were live recordings without the liner notes. One imagines the transfixed audience sitting there in awe, hushed by Drake’s ghostly presence.
While Danny Thompson put together a tasteful band and plays his jazzy double-bass with them, the dynamic coloration of the songs comes from the string arrangements that Robert Kirby (who died in 2009) recreated from his work with Drake.
The singers are free to rework the original arrangements or take a different, more muscular, vocal approach. But respectfulness rules – maybe a tad too much, occasionally, as when Australian singer Shane Nicholson’s jazz-rock version of “Poor Boy” can’t rise above its polite groove and back-up vocals to sound special. And Zoe Rahman’s piano work on an instrumental version of “One of These Things First” (with Thompson) succumbs to a kind of George Winston-like soothing quality after an interesting start.
But those are exceptions. Fortunately, most of the singers feel a kinship to Drake that comes through. They communicate that this is a cause worthy of their most thoughtful interpretive skills.
Irish singer Lisa Hannigan begins “Black Eyed Dog” as if it’s a mournful, solemn dirge and then gets so worked up it becomes an incantation. Teddy Thompson – who tends to get discounted as a musician because of the towering stature of his dad, Richard – sensitively holds and slightly vibrates the syllables while singing Drake’s masterfully melancholy “River Man.” Krystle Warren, an American singer, lets her deep, controlled voice slowly rise with energy and excitement on “Time Has Told Me,” without ever sounding like she’s trying to showboat at the cost of the song’s meaning.
The album’s three best-known singers all have stand-out contributions – Green Gartside’s voice on “Fruit Tree” has both a smooth, high-pitched purity and a shadowy sense of mystery; Vashti Bunyan’s “Which Will” perfectly captures the delicacy of Drake’s recordings; and Robyn Hitchcock’s take on “Parasite” has the eerie, Kafkaesque romanticism – the feeling of entering a private world – of the best of his own songs. (Below, watch Hitchcock and Gartside perform another track, “Free Ride,” live at the 2012 Drake tribute concert.)
Reason to Believe: The Songs of Tim Hardin
Full Time Hobby (www.fulltimehobby.co.uk/main/)
One has to laugh at the dark humor of the press release announcing this – it includes a quote from Bob Dylan that Hardin is “the greatest songwriter alive today” and then has the parenthetical qualifier “quote dates from when Tim Hardin was alive.”
Hardin, who died in 1980 of a heroin overdose at age 39, made a brief but immense impact as part of the late-1960s singer-songwriter movement. While he came out of the folk scene, he sang with the ethereal, bittersweet fluidity more akin to jazz (and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks) and perfect for his deeply melancholy, achingly heartfelt songs like “If I Were a Carpenter,” “Reason to Believe,” and “Red Balloon.” His period of musical relevancy was short – like a red balloon he just drifted off in the 1970s, even though he continued making albums.
This album puts together the kind of contemporary artists who should have an affinity for Hardin’s trancey, introspective work – Mark Lanegan, Okkervill River, Britain’s Smoke Fairies, New Zealand’s Phoenix Foundation and other, lesser-known contributors. It is not a star-studded tribute, which is a good thing. (Actually, performers representing a wide variety of musical styles covered Hardin in his heyday – Bobby Darin, the Four Tops, Nico, Rod Stewart and many more.)
Oddly, Hardin’s two most famous songs are the album’s least effective – Britain’s Sand Band deliver an enervated vocal and flat quasi-country-rock arrangement on “Reason to Believe,” while Smoke Fairies’ slightly electronic “Carpenter” renders a moody treatment with deadpan singing that under-dramatizes the song’s lyric.
But others are strong. Mark Lanegan, who has grown into a confident stylist of songs about need and longing, takes a Hardin song that seems optimistic – the gorgeous “Red Balloon” – and highlights the troubling, enigmatic reference to a “blue surprise.” As an acoustic guitar establishes the mood with minor-key notes and tuning, he brings new life to the song. Okkervil River’s “It’ll Never Happen Again” also is outstanding with its slow, drifting guitar solo. How can one band be drawn both to Hardin and Roky Erickson?
Among the other successes: Magnetic North’s “It’s Hard to Believe in Love for Long,” which also has a gentle electronic pulse behind the demure arrangement but still allows the singers to be expressive. Oregon singer Alela Diane’s “How Can We Hang On to a Dream,” which flavors a British traditional-folk arrangement – and singing – with what sounds like a synthesizer to lift up the title line. And young Icelandic male singer Snorri Helgason’s “Misty Roses” really captures that Sunday-afternoon-alone quality of Hardin’s voice.
Overall, it’s an album for quiet reflection and maybe sadness – nothing here rocks out. It feels true to Hardin, or at least to how we remember him. (Below: the Smoke Fairies’ version of “If I Were a Carpenter.”)
The Music Is You: A Tribute to John Denver
ATO Records (www.atorecords.com)
Besides being Tim Hardin’s most famous song, If I Were a Carpenter also is the title of one of the most influential tribute albums ever, the 1994 reassessment of the Carpenters by cutting-edge hipsters like Sonic Youth, Shonen Knife, Redd Kross and more. Ever since, there have been attempts to revive the reputations of soft-rock/soft-folk artists whom history has declared schmaltzy.
Denver, who died in 1997 in a plane accident, would seem a good candidate. But there are differences. The Carpenters mostly interpreted compositions by top writers of the day like Bacharach/David, Paul Williams, Leon Russell and Neil Sedaka. Denver wrote his own stuff.
And while his particular modus operandi – praising nature’s redemption power – had some subtlety and conviction in his early songs like “Take Me Home Country Roads,” with success he started writing to listener expectations. And after he became associated with Colorado, later hits like “Sunshine” and “Annie’s Song” were maudlin and musically simplistic.
This tribute is a project of Dave Matthews’ ATO label, and it’s top heavy with earnest, straightforward and sometimes-bland singers, including himself. Allen Stone’s “Rocky Mountain High” belabors its sweetness, Brandi Carlile sings right over Denver’s sense of discovery in “Country Roads” (Emmylou Harris provides additional vocals), and Brett Dennen and Milo’s “Annie’s Song” is prettiness for its own sake.
There are more like that, but fortunately a few singers bring an edgy alt-rock or hard-bitten Americana sensibility to their selections. Evan Dando (“Looking for Space”) and Blind Pilot (“The Eagle and the Hawk”) do reasonably well, and Jim James’ strangely affecting quavering tenor is fine for My Morning Jacket’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Lucinda Williams’ magnificent bluesy, nuanced vocal style – full of mature complexity –gets deep into “This Old Guitar,” a song Neil Young would have been proud to write. (Below: one of several video trailers cut for the Denver project.)
Unsung Hero: A Tribute to the Music of Ron Davies
LCP Records (www.GailDavies.com)
Ron Davies, who died in 2003 at age 57, was a country-pop singer-songwriter who used simple, everyday language in a fresh and direct – yet artful – way, without the gimmicky catch phrases and belabored “lessons learned” story arcs of too much commercial country. He turned to this oeuvre with an outstanding credential – writing songs for Washington garage-rock legends the Wailers.
His songs are about feelings, especially love, but never maudlin or sentimental; he had enough confidence in the honesty of his observations to avoid overwriting. His gift was similar to Roger Miller’s and Tom T. Hall’s, and it’s a shame he didn’t have more success. His best-known compositions are “It Ain’t Easy” (David Bowie, Three Dog Night, Mitch Ryder, Long John Baldry) and “Long Hard Climb” (Maria Muldaur, Helen Reddy).
But while maybe the public-at-large doesn’t know Davies that well – a lot of rock fans think Ray Davies wrote “It Ain’t Easy” – Nashville’s finest singer-songwriter-interpreters of Davies’ generation (and younger) have high regard.
So when Davies’ younger sister Gail (herself a fine country-pop singer) organized this tribute, the response was impressive. (All proceeds benefit W.O. Smith Music School.) Participating are John Prine, Dolly Parton, Crystal Gayle, Jim Lauderdale, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Jimmy Hall, Shelby Lynne and more.
In fact, Unsung Hero is an embarrassment of riches. There are 22 tracks on one disc (including a duet by the Davies siblings on “Steal Across the Border”), and it’s too much for an introduction to a “new talent” for many listeners. It overwhelms. All are impeccably produced with fine arrangements. (On several of the cuts, Davies collaborated with a songwriting partner, but most have words and music by him.)
Yet, individually, these songs are highly enjoyable and varied. Davies’ hard-edged but melodic rock side (think classic Little Feat) comes through on Hall’s tough and exuberant “Let It Slide,” Delbert McClinton’s funky “Say It With Money,” and Lynne’s soulful, punchy “It Ain’t Easy.”
But the country romantic – a man able to express himself with tenderness and homespun wisdom – is there, too, in Gail Davies’ “One More Night With You,” John Anderson’s “What Good Is a Secret,” Parton’s wonderful interpretation of “It’s Too Late,” Bonnie Bramlett’s moving, gospel-influenced invocation to “Lay My Body Down,” and Crystal Gayle’s “True Lovers and Friends,” which features a tenor sax solo by Benny Golson.
One hopes the Americana audience, which is now sizeable, belatedly discovers Davies through this record. And maybe Gail Davies can take a cue from Joe Boyd and next organize a series of tribute concerts around the country. (Below: Davies and sister Gail performing “It’s You Alone.”
A Date With the Everly Brothers
By The Chapin Sisters
Lake Bottom Records (www.arcofla.com)
In terms of country-flavored, unpretentious early rock that influenced the future, the Everly Brothers rank just behind Buddy Holly. And like Holly, they have become recipients of several recent tribute projects. But while the two big recent Holly projects were multi-star affairs (although a third, Paul Burch’s Words of Love, was better than either), the Everlys are the subject of new concept albums from single acts – duos, naturally.
What the Brothers Sang, by Dawn McCarthy & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, is a revelation. Much of the material is unfamiliar, even obscure, and the two voices combine to give the record a magical “old weird America” sound that the brothers, themselves, would admire.
The Chapin Sisters’ A Date With the Everly Brothers is more conventional but still pleasurable. They have recreated the harmonies of many of the brothers’ biggest hits – “Crying in the Rain,” “Cathy’s Clown,” “So Sad,” “Love Hurts,” “When Will I Be Loved,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” and “Til I Kissed You” – with Lily doing Don Everly’s parts and Abigail as the higher-pitched Phil. (They also do some less familiar songs.) The album’s title is taken straight from an old Everlys record; the sisters even dress like the brothers on the cover.
The sisters, the daughters of Tom Chapin and nieces of the late Harry Chapin, recorded these 14 songs in one long session in Brooklyn with a small, sensitive ensemble assembled by Andrew Taylor. They capture the joyful exuberance of the Everlys’ upbeat tunes and the etherealness of their ballads, even layering vocal tracks on “Dream.”
But the spookiness, the chill, of the Appalachian murder ballad “Down in the Willow Garden” escapes them – their version is de rigueur. Still, they convincingly make the case that the Everlys’ material and vocal approach still sound lively. (Below: the Chapins’ take on “Crying In the Rain.”)
Postscript: Already, more tribute projects have been announced, so there’s no end in sight. In a way, that’s odd because it’s not like their subjects would disappear from our collective memory without them.
With specialty record labels and blogs devoted to obscure or forgotten artists, and with YouTube making it possible to hear performances by Drake or Hardin or even Davies at the touch of a cursor, their pasts are well-preserved.
But tribute albums are a way to keep them current when they’re unable to do that for themselves. And currency is vital to having meaning in popular culture.