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Starstruck, Baby

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Why do so many rock tribute albums suck? Driving home from my local mom-and-pop CD store with a copy of This Is Where I Belong: The Songs of Ray Davies & The Kinks settled on the passenger seat, I was pondering this question. Jazz and easy listening vocalists have been putting out tribute albums for decades (think of Ella Fitzgerald’s landmark Songbook long-players) and produced some damn fine records in the process. Yet, when it comes to rock tributes, the duds outnumber the dream dates.
It could be an issue of the contributors’ musical proficiency – or lack of same – but that’s not the only factor. Most rock songs are known as much for their debut performance as for the songs themselves, so re-interpreters need to do more just sing the songs well, they need to own ‘em totally. That requires a level of commitment that can elude both the callow and professional.
A longtime Kinks fan, I couldn’t skip Rykodisc’s new tribute collection: even as the Voice of Experience shouted warning notes all the way home. As tribute discs go, Belong avoids the campiness of some sets – young musicians hiding behind irony because that’s the only emotional stance they know – and contains some surprisingly apt performances. (Jonathan Richman doing “Stop Your Sobbing”! Astrid Gilberto’s kid doing the bossa nova, “No Return”! Yo La Tengo assaying the droney raga-like “Fancy”!) I also enjoyed the remakes done by pop-rock faves, Fountains of Wayne and Matthew Sweet: the kind of straight-ahead tracks that wouldn’t be out of place on either artists’ own albums. Weakest track: Lambchop’s creepy rendition of “Art Lover” (and I usually like creepy!)
Perhaps I’d be less critical of any of these cuts if they’d shown up on the artists’ own discs. Taken out of the Big Tribute setting, simple covers can work as a recognition of the influences behind an artist’s work. Lumped together, however, the main thing they do is encourage you to compare and contrast.
Maybe I’m being slavishly fannish, but I’d argue that it’s the job of the performers here to convince me that I want to spend more than one time listening to versions of songs I can play any day in their initial incarnations. That only happens sporadically on even the best tribute collections, and while Belong is a good ‘un, it still can’t fully overcome the rock tribute curse.
The disc ends with an acoustic version of “Waterloo Sunset,” one of Ray Davies’ greatest songs, done by the composer with Blur frontman Damon Albarn. First time I heard it I fixated on the fact that Albarn’s falsetto was no match for the pristine pop harmonies Davies had coaxed out of his band in the sixties. Many replays later, I still can’t get beyond it.
(Originally posted in Pop Culture Gadabout.)

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.
  • http://www.nerichardson.co.uk Nigel E. Richardson

    Well, part of the problem is that they’re “tribute” albums. People used to just cover – or maybe interpret if they wanted to be fancy – other people’s material as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Just about every mid 60s album, be it by the Sandpipers, the Music Machine or Love had a version of “Hey Joe”, “Louie Louie” or “Tax Man”.

    Most tribute albums carry with them too many conotations of homage, deference and sycophancy, bands wanting to make a big deal of their artistic relationship, spiritual kinship et al to whoever’s this week’s rock legend. And the interpretations are usually too safe, rarely taking a chance or challenging the original version, as if afraid that they might overshadow the original or tarnish its reputation.

    In fact, I’d go as far as to say that some of the best tributes are those by bands who evidently have never heard the originals until they’ve been asked to interpret them….