A few years back (forever, in pop-culture time), tribute discs were mainly devoid of irony. Collections in which various vocalists or groups presented versions of songs associated with a particular singer or songwriter were produced to make money, of course, but also to laud worthy peers or raise funds for obscure talents down on their luck. Nineties nods to Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen and Texas musical legend Roky Erickson fit into the former category, while Sweet Relief, in which acts such as Soul Asylum covered compositions penned by ailing performer Victoria Williams, fell into the latter.
Indie imprints changed all that. Compilations such as the 1993 Grass Records set Chairman of the Board: Interpretations of Songs Made Famous by Frank Sinatra, in which punk bands lacerated Ol' Blue Eyes' canon, are equal parts praise and snottiness. As the song says, there's a thin line between love and hate, and offerings like this one blur that boundary until it all but disappears.
The latest batch of tribute discs (some released independently, others put out by major labels) is equally hard to read. Many of the most sincere efforts founder, while some tracks that seem to have been intended solely for yuks actually reveal something about both the original artists and the performers taking shots at them.
The most interesting of these packages is If I Were a Carpenter, devoted to the legacy (?) of Richard Carpenter and his sibling Karen, a lachrymose sort who became a martyr to the nation's sob sisters when she died as the result of an eating disorder. The squad recruited to survey this material consists of stars on the so-called alternative scene, many of whom likely started making music because they were horrified by the kind of housewife-y pap the Carpenters churned out. But the surprise here is how many of the performers seem to discover while reconstructing these exceedingly familiar numbers that they actually liked the damn things after all. That's not always a good thing: Sheryl Crow's "Solitaire," the Cranberries' "Close to You," and "Hurting Each Other" by Johnette Napolitano and Marc Moreland are reminiscent enough of the Carpenters' originals to make many of us squeamish. But Shonen Knife ("Top of the World"), Redd Kross ("Yesterday Once More") and Babes in Toyland ("Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft") transform their selections into surprisingly bracing power pop, while American Music Club ("Goodbye to Love") and Sonic Youth ("Superstar") find something dark and unsettling in ditties that previously had seemed thimble-deep. Scary.
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Kiss My Ass, focusing on the songs of Kiss, is frightening for other reasons--mainly, the generally unexceptional nature of the participating performers. Garth Brooks ("Hard Luck Woman") proves that he can be just as boring doing a power ballad as he can spewing out faux-country tunes, while the Gin Blossoms ("Rock and Roll All Nite"), Toad the Wet Sprocket ("Calling Dr. Love"), the Lemonheads ("Plaster Caster") and the vile Lenny Kravitz ("Deuce") display their almost total lack of imagination by knocking off takes that most bar bands would be embarrassed to claim. "Goin' Blind" by Dinosaur Jr. is cool, but overall, Kiss My Ass fails to give this band's good songs (and there were some--honest!) the kind of smarmy, balls-out treatment they deserve.
Timidity also does in No Prima Donna: The Songs of Van Morrison, and for an obvious reason: Morrison himself is the co-producer. As a result, folks such as Cassandra Wilson ("Crazy Love"), Elvis Costello ("Full Force Gail"), Marianne Faithfull ("Madame George") and Lisa Stansfield ("Friday's Child") sound constrained. The presence of Van the Man no doubt prevented the kinds of musical liberties that might have given us insight into these terrific songs and this craggy artiste. The makers of You Got Lucky: A Tribute to Tom Petty didn't have the same problem--Petty apparently had nothing to do with the disc. But for some reason, the underground types who populate the platter take a surprisingly deferential approach. The first three tracks (Everclear's "American Girl," Engine Kid's "Breakdown," Throneberry's "Here Comes My Girl") are far too straightforward, and "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," seemingly a golden opportunity for subversion, gets staid treatment from Loud Lucy. Nectarine ("Even the Losers") and Punchdrunk ("Nightwatchman") take risks that are rewarded, but they're in the minority. Maybe Petty is too solid a citizen to inspire the strong feelings that might have made You Got Lucky more provocative.
Then again, a shortage of ambiguity can sometimes be a positive attribute, as Brace Yourself: A Tribute to Otis Blackwell demonstrates. The songs of Blackwell, a gifted songwriter who wrote many of Elvis Presley's early smashes, provide a primer on the language of rock and roll; thus, this album is mostly an excuse to simply blow the doors off the joint. Artists as disparate as Graham Parker ("Paralyzed"), Chrissie Hynde and Chris Spedding ("Hey Little Boy [Little Girl]"), Tom Verlaine ("Fever"), Joe Ely and Sue Foley ("Great Balls of Fire") and Frank Black ("Breathless," "Handyman") come from very different places but wind up at the same destination.
Brace Yourself may be just another tribute album, but it's a worthy one. And that's the kind of salute that means something.