Album: The Music Is You: A Tribute to John Denver

Artist: Various Artists

Label: ATO

Release Date: April 23, 2013

John Denver tribute



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.

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