Wednesday, March 19, 2014

John Denver and The Carpenters Remembered

Back to the ‘70s with tributes from today’s and ‘90s artists

Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett Teamed for The Lady Is A Tramp
   The tribute album depends on two factors:  the music of a past singer/musician the listener wants to hear again, and a new generation of performers revitalizing it.  Where tribute
albums get dicey for me is when an aged, but still living, legendary performer turns from a solo act into a duet or group.  It’s like when your grandparents can no longer cook a dish or tell a story for which they were known without help from their children or grandchildren.  Even more bizarre is when the performer being feted has actually died, but the vocal tracks are used in conjunction with the younger, living performer.  It’s creative necrophilia, but it can sell a lot of albums and win Grammys.  

The Music Is You:
A Tribute To John Denver
   Let’s take a look at two albums, released almost twenty years apart, that honor two middle-of-the-road artists from the ‘70s.  The Music Is You:  A Tribute To John Denver came out this past year.  John Denver was a country artist (though not enough of one for Charlie Rich’s liking), but he was really more a folk-pop singer and he would probably be a roots or Americana musician if he were starting out today.  This leads to a wide range of contemporary artists such as Train, Old Crow Medicine Show, My Morning Jacket, Brandi Carlile and Emmy Lou Harris covering Denver’s songs.

   It’s a mixed bag or intriguing group, depending on your viewpoint, and the results are sort of all over the place.  Two of the more intriguing performances are by Blind Pilot with “the eagle and the hawk” and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros with “wooden indian.”  Part of the surprise for me lies in the fact that I don’t know those songs.  Josh Ritter and Barnstar! present what Denver might sound like now in “darcy farrow,” while the usually incandescent My Morning Jacket sounds wan on “leaving on a jet plane” and Lucinda Williams sounds crotchety and eccentric on “this old guitar.” I usually
Dave Matthews Band
have a ‘so what?’ attitude about Dave Matthews, but he’s electrifying on “take me to tomorrow” because his version sounds like himself, doesn’t lose Denver, and somehow pushes the song into something completely contemporary.  Matthews completely erases commercial musical genre boundaries.  Evan Dando’s cover of “looking for space” sounds like 1993 calling and wanting its also-ran single returned.

   It’s a shame that Dando, who fronted the Lemonheads, wasn’t a participant on the gold standard of American pop-rock tribute albums If I Were a Carpenter, a document not only of some of The Carpenters biggest hits, but also the essence of the Alternative rock scene at its peak.  Artists include Alternative godfathers and mother Sonic Youth, American Music Club, Dishwalla, Bettie Serveert, Johnette Napoolitano and Marc Moreland, Cracker, Matthew Sweet, and the new (at that time) stars Sheryl Crow and The Cranberries.  There isn’t a bum track on this collection. What’s forgotten is that the Carpenters didn’t write many of their songs.  Richard Carpenter’s forte was in arranging existing songs, while Karen Carpenter’s melancholic contralto made them memorable.

   Therefore, the contributors were pretty much open to interpreting the songs as they saw fit.  Babes in Toyland’s “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” turns a novelty song into something like an android searching for a long lost love.  It’s the song Wall-E might have sung over a decade later.  Shonen Knife, a female Japanese punk band makes light of “Top of the World” – they could be floating.  Dishwalla’s “It’s Going to Take Some Time” beautifully honors the original, while Matthew Sweet’s “Let Me Be the One” yearns almost until it keens.  Napolitano and Moreland’s “Hurting Each Other” should have become a classic.  Its passion recalls Springsteen and Smith’s “Because the Night” and the sense of exhaustion sounds like Mick and Keith’s “Wild Horses” thirty years later.  

Sonic Youth
   The standout track has to be Sonic Youth’s re-envisioning of “Superstar.”  Supposedly, Richard Carpenter didn’t like this version, but since Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell wrote the song, why should I care?  Bonnie originally sang it as a hippie groupie lament, Bette Midler envisioned it as a chanteuse, sort of a latter day Piaf ballad, and Karen Carpenter sounded like a young woman hoping for her potential new boyfriend to return.  Making full use of the feedback and distortion that was key to their sound, Sonic Youth interpret it as a head-trip or fantasy that may not be rooted in reality and the genders of the singer and the superstar being recalled are ambiguous.

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