One thing certain about 2014 -- and any year, for that matter: it brings with it new tribute and covers albums, as sure as the changing seasons. So with this year already more than half finished, it's time to look at some of the more notable to date. Let's start out with a surprise...
Other than his appearance playing fiddle in a Geico commercial a few years back, you're probably hard-pressed to know what Charlie Daniels has been up to these past 30 years or so. To the extent you've thought about him at all, you've probably assumed he's playing "The South's Gonna Do It" ad nauseam at biker rallies.
So here's the revelation. The Charlie Daniels Band's "Off the Grid: Doin' It Dylan" shows that Daniels is a great Dylan interpreter. More, this is exactly the kind of strong, rockin', country-swing sound - with emphatic vocals that kick, bite and snarl with defiance -- that Dylan himself has sought since he snapped out of his mid-life crisis and retooled his approach to making music in the early 1990s. And Daniels might just be better at it than Dylan!
The singer-violinist-guitarist goes way back with Dylan -- he was a session bassist on Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning.
Daniels is an expressively rough-voiced and forceful country singer of the kind that would seem to have disappeared with Johnny Paycheck. He also has a touch of Wolfman Jack gravitas. He's soulful and fierce -- no sentimentality -- and fully engaged. He doesn't drawl like "Like a Rolling Stone"-era Dylan.
But he can hold on to a syllable and shake it with meaning. And he sings with great clarity even while snarling.
He also has a fiery band that melds hard-edged country, bluegrass, and acoustic-oriented roots music in a way that younger Nashville punk acts like Jason & the Scorchers (who once covered "Absolutely Sweet Marie") should envy. Country fiddle, played no-holds-barred like this, is as powerful as electric guitar.
Besides Daniels, there are Shannon Wickline on piano, Casey Wood on harmonium, Bruce Brown and Chris Wormer on all sorts of mostly acoustic stringed instruments (Brown also plays harmonica), Charlie Hayward on bass and Pat McDonald on percussion (including tambourine).
But the key here is that Daniels understands the songs he has selected and makes astute choices (although "The Mighty Quinn" isn't up to the competition).
Daniels makes "Country Pie" -- which on Nashville Skyline seemed awfully trivial -- a spry, jaunty celebration of country music. And he sings "Just Like a Woman" and especially "I Shall Be Released" with sensitivity. But he's at his best hurling, with world's-about-to-end urgency, those amazingly memorable couplets on "Gotta Serve Somebody," "Times They Are a Changin'" (which sounds fit and apt with fiddle) and especially "Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall."
On the latter, after Brown's foreboding harmonica intro, he instills the chilling lyric with the ominous anger that builds with witness-bearing authority. When his band members join in on high harmonies on "hard rain," you look outside your window to see if the storm has started. And you realize how much this song - and Dylan -- means to Daniels.
(The Charlie Daniels Band; Off the Grid: Doin' It Dylan'; Blue Hat Records; www.bluehatrecords.com; 4 out of 5 stars.)
The tight focus and sense of purpose Daniels brings to Dylan are missing in Bob Dylan In the 80s: Volume One, which comes from Dave Matthews' ATO Records. The novelist Jonathan Lethem wrote the liner notes, which make an eloquent case that Dylan's material in his least-regarded decade is far better than he's given credit for.
Fair point, but it's tough to put all his 1980s work into one box -- his gospel period (which actually started in 1979 with Slow Train Coming) is far different from his return to more accessible (for him) material with 1983's Infidels. And after that, he seemed split between ambitious records (Empire Burlesque, Oh Mercy) and scattershot product.
In retrospect, some of his very best 1980s compositions were left off the albums they were intended for and only emerged later -- "Blind Willie McTell" and "Someone's Got a Hold of My Heart" from Infidels; "Series of Dreams" and "Dignity" from Oh Mercy. So it's a decade in which Dylan stayed busy but seemed confused.
And this project, too, seems confused. The 17-cut Volume One presumes a Volume Two is coming, but why not just do one record that covers 17 of his real high points from the 1980s? This has "Wiggle Wiggle," for instance, a fun tune but hardly Item One in any case for establishing the greatness of Dylan in the 1980s. And there are only two songs from Infidels -- a truly overlooked and underrated record.
The selection of mostly younger artists seems almost random -- and many lack, to put it politely, a distinctive approach. It also has covers that are inferior to already existing ones available elsewhere.
For instance, "Series of Dreams" is one of Dylan's most intense songs -- simultaneously searing and chilling in its outside-looking-in exploration of the subconscious, Both his version, on which producer Daniel Lanois channels his own subconscious with a repeating "Then He Kissed Me" motif, and an existing cover by the British band Gallon Drunk are powerful. This album features a flat version by an unimpressive musical act named Yellowbird that has unexciting production and a diffident vocal.
Similarly, "Dark Eyes" from Dawn Landes and Bonnie "Prince" Billy (Will Oldham) is meant to be a duet, but it sounds like someone had to poke Oldham with a stick to get him to barely sing along. Glen Hansard, who too often skirts being grating with his "soulful" vocals, mostly stays in check on "Pressing On" but he can't approach John Doe's cover on the I'm Not There soundtrack. The light, airy version of "Death Is Not the End" by Carl Broemel is insubstantial when compared to Nick Cave's previous take on the song.
So what works? It's nice to hear Craig Finn's mournfully recitative, grainy voice on "Sweetheart Like You" (but Dylan's own gritty, funky version is better). Elvis Perkins' "Congratulations" gives the song a contemporary edge without losing the poignancy, and Lucius strips the schlocky production of Dylan's original "When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky" from Empire Burlesque. And there are some others that are all right.
Still, one leaves this album wondering what the point of it was.
(Bob Dylan in the 80s: Volume One; ATO Records; www.atorecords.com; 2 out of 5 stars.)
From Another World: A Tribute to Bob Dylan is a great idea and a pretty good album for about 30 minutes or so, until repetition sets in. Unfortunately, it lasts slightly more than an hour. Producer Alain Weber, a native of France who has been artistic director of Morocco's Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, sought to have traditional artists from around the world interpret Dylan songs (usually in their native languages or as instrumentals.)
It gets off to an alluring start with Eliades Ochoa, the Cuban guitarist and singer, doing a slightly flamenco-styled version of "All Along the Watchtower." It's compelling, but you also notice something that will become a problem as the album goes on - at times, a song's relationship to its source material seems tentative, especially given the language barrier.
How well the pairings work seems to depend on whether the choice of the artist makes some logical sense for the material. Thus, the version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" by Purna Das Baul & Bapi Das Baul, Indian religious men, work as both a Dylan cover and as a type of world music that could be called "Dylanesque" in its exploration of the mystical. The album's liner notes make it unclear who is playing the single-string ektara (Purna Das Paul is singing), but it's evocative.
On the other hand, the relevance of having Egypt's Musicians of the Nile doing "Tangled Up in Blue" -- with now-deceased Yussef Bakash singing and Mohammed Murad's fiddle -- is far less clear. Same with India's Divana Ensemble on "Jokerman."
There are some instrumentals that work as novelties, such as the Burmese Orchestra Saing Waing's "I Want You" and the Macedonian Kocani Orkestar's brass-band journey through "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35." And sometimes the beauty of a voice, like Lhamo Dukpa of Bhutan on "With God on Our Side," transcends a "relevancy" problem. But overall, the album would be better if it was shorter. Also, assuming the title comes from the lyrics of "Series of Dreams," why wasn't that covered?
(From Another World: A Tribute to Bob Dylan; Buda Musique; www.budamusique.com. 3 out of 5 stars)
Turning from Dylan to other singer-songwriters who so far this year have merited tributes, it's mostly men-- including determinedly modernist rocker Peter Gabriel. He's so serious about making his songs be intellectual in their lyrical purpose and sophisticatedly contemporary and international their arrangements that one forgets he does occasionally like to have fun with a tune like "Big Time" or "Sledgehammer."
One also tends to forget just how sumptuously memorable his melodies can be when he's focused. True, he doesn't do much to remind people of that - since his commercial heyday in the 1980s he's become slow to release new pop or rock material.
And I'll Scratch Yours is the second part of a project that began in 2010 when, on Scratch My Back, he covered favorite songs by such artists as Lou Reed, Talking Heads, Radiohead, Bon Iver and Arcade Fire. This writer found it dolorously solemn.
But now he's gotten most of the artists, Boomers and comparative newcomers, that he covered -- save Radiohead, David Bowie and Neil Young - to interpret his solo songs. This was the intention of the project from the beginning and a few of this record's selections date to 2010, although this disc came out early this year. Released on his own label, it is credited as being a Gabriel album.
There's one stone masterpiece of revisionism. Lou Reed treats "Solsbury Hill" as droning, feedback-drenched industrial music with bang-on-a-can percussion and additional guitar from Mike Rathke. Yet it isn't monotonous. His singing is impassioned, emotional even, in its dry, slow craggy way as he draws out key syllables like mid-1960s Dylan in his search for meaning. As he hits on "My heart was going boom boom boom" and "I've come to take you home," it's as if he's found a personal release. He seems happy; he knows something we don't.
On "Mercy Street," Elbow lead singer Guy Garvey has a voice very similar to Gabriel's in the way he lets a soothing sadness envelop a ballad like rolling fog. Joseph Arthur takes the percussive thwack out of "Shock the Monkey" and makes it a very effective, contemplative, airy, dirge-like tone poem.
Randy Newman's "Big Time" is hilariously droll, especially when he proudly croons "My ass gets bigger," and it's nice to hear Paul Simon sing quietly to folk-like acoustic guitar (augmented by a subtle string arrangement) on "Biko." It's also nice to hear Simon sing a song whose lyrics are direct and to the point.
Some of the others are less successful -- Arcade Fire's "Games Without Frontiers" is inert and Stephin Merritt's "Not One of Us" is too rigidly rhythmic and on the chorus his voice is altered to the point of sounding robotic. But overall, this is a quite nicely realized project.
(And I'll Scratch Yours; Real World Records; www.realworldrecords.com. 3½ out of 5 stars)
Pre-rock blues/folk "elder" Big Bill Broonzy is a hallowed figure yet not all that familiar a one. But brothers Dave and Phil Alvin seem to be changing that. Their tour in support of Common Ground: The Songs of Big Bill Broonzy has been garnering the best reviews either has gotten in his long career. That's not only because it's the first album they've recorded together since they were both in the Blasters, but also because this project is a labor of love.
Twelve-year-old Phil turned on his (slightly) younger brother to Broonzy in the 1960s, and it's been a lasting bond since then, whatever other musical differences have arisen. So it was a natural subject for them to turn to, after Phil survived a near-fatal illness, when making a record.
The songs chosen brim with blues wisdom -- "Stuff They Call Money," "Truckin' Little Woman," "Key to the Highway" and more. Phil's voice, so influenced by jump-blues singers, still has that soaring, jet-propelled cri de coeur quality and his articulation is clear like oratory. And Dave, who let his guitar do his talking in the Blasters, has developed a gruff, deep and dusty baritone that's right for the older, pre-World War II acoustic blues songs of Broonzy (who recorded well into the 1950s and did some electric-blues recordings). At times, as on "Key to the Highway," he sounds like Johnny Cash.
The men sing together and separately on the twelve songs -- sometimes in unison, sometimes trading lines or verses. Dave plays acoustic and National steel guitar and also some stinging, slashing, rigorously driving electric. Phil plays acoustic guitar and confident harmonica. They also have support on piano, bass and drums -- really, this is a controlled but lively group album and songs like "Tomorrow" really rock.
As well as they get along here, and as satisfying as the results are, it's hard to believe they won't be doing more full albums together. If that's so, Common Ground will not just serve as a tribute to the deserving Broonzy, but also to the wisdom of these two brothers reuniting on record for a full project.
(Common Ground -Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy; Yep Roc Records; www.yeprock.com. 4½ out of 5 stars.)
Jackson Browne's lyrics -- at least for the songs he wrote and recorded in the 1970s -- are going to remain eternally interesting for his unusual style. Take a line like this from "Running on Empty":
"I look around for the friends I used to turn to to pull me through/Looking into their eyes I see them running too."
It seems so mundane, clumsy even, in its wordiness. And yet its central point is so striking, so unforgettable, so -- well -- generational in its ability to capture the fears and longing of an audience growing up with him.
He's been his best interpreter -- although Penny Nichols did a fine job on 2012's Colors of the Sun -- but it's always worth hearing someone else's version of one of his songs. There's always the chance they'll find new meaning, since his best songs seem to have so much of it to spare.
But there are some caveats. In the 1980s, he withdrew from the introspective, metaphoric lyrics and hypnotically meandering melodies that were his hallmark. Instead, after one Springsteenish bombastic-rock hit ("Boulevard") and one slyly sexy one ("Somebody's Baby"), he turned lyrically obtuse ("Lawyers in Love") and then prosaically political.
It took him well into the 1990s to regain his focus -- 2008's Time the Conqueror has songs that stand with his 1970s peak, like "Live Nude Café." But by that time he had lost a lot of his audience. People whose lives once depended on his songs couldn't name a new one if their life depended on it.
My preference would be that the two-disc Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne only feature Browne songs of the last 35 years or so -- we don't really need another version of "These Days" (as here provided by Don Henley with Blind Pilot). This does have some recent ones, like Griffin House's seductively rocking and sincere version of "Barricades of Heaven" and Bonnie Raitt's boring pop-reggae version (with corny toasting by David Lindley) of "Everywhere I Go."
But the majority of the material is from Browne's 1970s output. It's hard not to return to such a productive, seductive well. Jimmy LaFave, who came to renown with his Dylan interpretations and who is a co-producer of this album along with a co-owner of the label releasing it, lets "For Everyman" build majestically, ending with a fiddle-and-string flourish that turns it into a country-rock "Fanfare for the Common Man."
LaFave and co-producer/label owner Kelcy Warren were able to get some top veterans for this project -- Lyle Lovett (two songs, including "Rosie"), Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa ("Linda Paloma"), JD Souther ("Opening Farewell"), and more. All the above are good.
Especially unusual is Lucinda Williams' uneasy, slightly anguished probing of "The Pretender," as if she is forcing the song's poetry to break free of Browne's original recording (and pacing) and reveal itself anew to her. It might make you squirm with its deconstruction until you realize the daringness of her risk-taking. And voila, it works. But not so Indigo Girls' "Fountain of Sorrow," which is anything but closer to fine.
Several members of younger generations influenced by Browne get their chance, too, with his classic songs. Some do well (Sean and Sara Watkins on "Your Bright Baby Blues"), Bob Schneider on a spookily quiet and sad "Running on Empty"). Some are just average (Ben Harper's "Jamaica Say You Will").
Browne did write some pretty good up-tempo songs in the 1970s, and several are covered here - "Doctor My Eyes" by Paul Thorn and "Rock Me On the Water" by Keb' Mo.' Curiously, both of these fall flat. It may be because they don't hold up as well as his more serene material; it may be because Thorn tries too hard and Keb' Mo's voice is less distinctive than his guitar work. (It would have been a kick if someone, maybe Jerry Lee Lewis, had covered "Redneck Friend.")
It's doubtful this project could have attracted the performers it did without Browne's approval, so the selection probably means he believes these songs are his legacy. In that regard, for the most part, he has chosen wisely.
(Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne; Music Road Records; www.musicroadrecords.com. 3 stars out of five.)
Even though the late Harry Nilsson developed a predilection for raw shouting, and some say ruined his voice screaming on "Many Rivers to Cross" for 1974's Pussy Cats album, which he recorded with drinking buddy John Lennon and wackily has covers of both "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and Johnny Thunder's (not Johnny Thunders') 1963 dance hit "Loop De Loop," he was best as a winsome, shy singer who seemed almost embarrassed to be writing about personal loneliness, sadness and insecurities while L.A. compatriots were writing about getting high, making love and enjoying the sunshine. He must have really been shy about it, too - he didn't tour.
Even as his albums grew more extroverted and full of jokes and odd covers, he was capable as a writer of something shocking in its courageous confessional intimacy. Pussy Cats has maybe his best song, "Don't Forget Me," where he pleads, "When we're older/And full of cancer/It doesn't matter now/Come on, get happy."
So he's not an easy candidate for a tribute -- there's such a dichotomy to his work. For the Love of Harry, which came out in1995 soon after his death, had an A-list of contributors (Randy Newman, Ringo Starr, Jimmy Webb, Aimee Mann, Brian Wilson) yet it struggled to be interesting over two discs.
This Is the Town: A Tribute to Nilsson Volume 1 must have struggled just to round up 20 contributors, much less A-listers, and some do little to prompt interest in either Nilsson or themselves. Listening to the off-key warbling of raga-rock band Church of Betty's lead singer (who I assume is Chris Rael) at the end of "Without You" (which Badfinger's Pete Ham and Tom Evans, rather than Nilsson, wrote) is no treat.
Similarly, part of the charm of Nilsson's true rockers was that this was the same guy who wrote delicate tunes like "Without Her," "Me and My Arrow" or "1941." When Low Cut Connie does "Jump Into the Fire," there's no surprise -- it sounds the way it should. On the other hand, Dawn Landes takes another one of Nilsson's more rollicking tunes, "You're Breaking My Heart," and gives it a calming, almost-samba-like rhythm with an ever-so-slightly jazzy piano. Nilsson probably never imagined anyone could say "fuck you" as sweetly as Landes.
This Is the Town has its fair share of other successes, like Jenny O's "1941." And Mamie Minch, playing just the dobro and singing with an unusually deep resonance that makes it hard to guess her gender by just hearing her, does an interesting version of "Don't Forget Me."
But itsmajor problem is a common one for tribute albums -- artists who aren't particularly special (Yellowbirds, The Wiyos, Johnny Society) do nothing-particularly-special versions of relatively obscure songs ("Rainmaker," Nobody Cares About the Railroad Anymore," "Mr. Richland's Favorite Song" (that last one sneaks in a snatch of "One.") So it's hard to care when listening to them.
(This Is the Town: A Tribute to Nilsson Volume 1; The Royal Potato Family; www.royalpotatofamily.com; 2½ stars out of five.)
Joseph Arthur's voice is naturally mournful -- it's low and grainy, slow getting out words as if contemplating every one, and full of a slightly-choked-backed regret and a pining for something better. He's maybe not the natural choice to cover Lou Reed -- who could be so taunting and dispassionate -- but he is a natural choice to be paying respects to someone who has departed.
And Reed's death last year did move him to pay those respects, first in a eulogy written for American Songwriter and then on the low-key tribute album Lou, which he produced and mixed as well as sang all the parts and played all the primarily acoustic instruments.
Almost all the songs are perfectly chosen, especially two from Reed's tough-mindedly truthful Magic and Loss album (the title song and "Sword of Damocles"), which uncomfortably and uncompromisingly stares at death and disease with unsentimental poetry. Funny how when Reed confronted the treatment for cancer in this song, his audience turned away. Yet when he just as unflinchingly (and majestically) described the need for heroin, he created a song every bit as much a 1960s-rock classic as "Good Vibrations" or "All You Need Is Love." Cancer vs. heroin?
Anyway, Arthur also does "Heroin," proving that piano and acoustic guitar can drive the "rushing on my run" of a fix as well as John Cale's electric viola did.
Arthur also revives "Wild Child" from Reed's first solo album, a "New York characters" precursor to "Walk on the Wild Side" full of sharp, smart observations about early 1970s street life. Arthur opens with a stripped-down, hushed "Wild Side," with piano the predominant instrument, that's downright tender.
Of the 12 songs, only "NYC Man" comes off wanting -- melodically, it's a little too much of a calculated pop concession from Reed, and it doesn't work well with Arthur's intimate approach.
But Arthur makes lots of good artistic decisions otherwise. He double-tracks his voice on "Satellite of Love" and doesn't alter the tempo, as Reed did, on the "I've been told/That you've been bold" bridge. On "Dirty Blvd.," which uses piano for its rhythmic momentum, he layers his voice just on the chorus, giving it extra emphasis.
And his hushed, confessional whispering of "I want to play football for the coach" on the closing "Coney Island Baby" establishes the groundwork, the memory play, to allow him to reach for gorgeously frail high notes on the dreamy "glory of love" part. He captures the honesty and affirmation, and ultimately the transcendence, in this difficult but beatific song that is one of Reed's best. It's now also one of Arthur's best - as is this true, loving tribute album.
(Joseph Arthur, Lou; Vanguard Records. www.vanguardrecords.com. 4 and ½ stars out of 5)
This first appeared at www.blurtonline.com on 10-20-14. Part 2 is coming soon.