Monday, October 01, 2012

Third-Hand News From First-Run Bands

We would fly along the interstates, windows down, the rough noise of passing through the air buffeting us beyond the windshield as we pushed along to Galveston on the weekends, or, occasionally, Tennessee in one extremely long day-to-night to see family. When Dad wasn't working the CB radio and chatting up any truckers he could conjure through the airwaves, we were adding to the roaring in our ears by playing cassette tapes on the Bronco's stereo. The tapes of choice? The Beach Boys' Endless Summer compilation comes to mind. Also, as I recall to my chagrin, a collection of John Denver's best.

But then Mom would pull out the homemade Maxell tape with the two albums she'd occasionally blast on the turntable at home, the ones she'd prefer over the two shelves crammed with late '60's - early '70's albums Dad had collected from his after-college days working at Sam Goody's. Depending on which side it was, "Monday Morning" would shout out first, or "Second Hand News," both of them displays of Lindsey Buckingham's virtuosity and his particular infusion of power rock.

The music on Fleetwood Mac and Rumours didn't end there, either. It was the women of the group as well as the men who shined. Though these days, Stevie Nicks is now a cliché-d witchy woman swathed in scarves and swirling skirts sounding as though she's singing (gracefully!) in gravel, she had a voice then that, cradled sometimes by bandmate Christine McVie's backing vocals, was a beautifully rough revelation. And McVie herself...well...

"I always loved her maiden name: Perfect," Mom would sigh occasionally when she'd hear tracks from McVie's solo album on the radio or when she'd hear "Songbird." It seemed McVie was perfect, beyond correct, able to slip into another softer realm that could be sentimental without being cloying. Whether she was backed by a great rhythm section (and boy does that get downplayed in the Mac's history, how solid the bass and drums were in their sound) or simply accompanying herself on the piano, Christine McVie was the center of the moment.

Those two albums were well crafted, yes, but they were also great to listen to in their entirety. Period. If I had a tape deck that didn't eat cassettes, I'd hunt down that old Maxell and really wear it out. Thank goodness for

I consider all of this now because, since I've been reviewing albums and books for a certain local publication for over a year now, I've had to come to terms with albums composed entirely of remade covers of a single band's oeuvre. Oh, I'm not unfamiliar with them - there was the Sweet Relief album for Victoria Williams, Red, Hot & Blue, as well as this personal favorite of mine that horrible, thieving movers stole years ago - but I do question making those types of compilations businesses in themselves, especially when ones like Just Tell Me That You Want Me are released. There are great moments on this tribute, don't get me wrong, but not enough to justify the album's existence ("Gold Dust Woman" done by the particular artist the producers chose sounds no different from the way it did when it was first cut. The point of that is lost on me.). From a straight critical blurb standpoint, that's where I am.

...but then I read reviews like this one and am struck by something else: compilation albums seem determined to amplify nostalgia whilst exploding it - and the best ones walk that tightrope so well, delighting you and giving you a shock all at once, that anything less is simply sad. Asking only indie rockers to handle classics like "Tusk" is catering to a lowest common denominator of interpreting and listening - it insults everybody involved. Where were hip-hop artists on this? Jazz musicians? Come on.

Compilers must keep in mind why the originals were so memorable in the first place, before they got consumed in commercials, abused as presidential campaign theme songs, and overcome by the band members' salacious backstories. It's what many bands do when they occasionally cover songs: play it in their own way, but with that window onto why they're playing it in the first place. Hopefully, the results will reach your heart and transform it a little, as any good performance does.

Unfortunately, I find that, in the particular instance of the Mac tribute, if I tried it out on a similar road trip today, the album wouldn't last me more than a few exits off I-59.

Compilers, artists, you can do better.

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