A tribute album is like an old squeeze. Just like you’ll get drunk and call her up hoping for some of that sweet ol’ mmm-hmm, only to feel kinda dirty-guilty the next morning, you sometimes reach (drunk, natch) for one of those horrible Kiss or Zep tribs you couldn’t bear to trade in ’cos of that one kickass version of “Detroit Rock City” or “Immigrant Song” — and, likewise, you feel disturbingly unclean afterwards.
Such is not the case with the tribute at hand, which hews neither to commerciality nor obviousness but to the original concept as pioneered by Britain’s Imaginary Records in the ’80s via offbeat salutes to the Byrds, Syd Barrett, Captain Beefheart, etc. That is, does the artist’s material have musical resonance and emotional depth that transcends time and interpretations? Hippie curmudgeon/Nashville songwriter/Rhodes scholar Kris Kristofferson’s tunes pass the litmus test, and if all you know is Janis Joplin’s celebratory version of “Me and Bobby McGee” (here, recast by X’s John Doe as a slice of mournful garage-soul), Don’t Let The Bastards … additionally serves the tribute’s other mandate, to bring out new shadings of an artist’s repertoire.
There’s Chuck Prophet’s straight-up reading of “Loving Her Was Easier” sounding like craggy baritone’d K.K. himself in an old Lee Hazelwood-Billy Strange production. Kelly Hogan gets down on her knees for “Why Me,” fairly sobbing the lines “Lord, help me, Jesus/I’ve wasted it” as Andrew Bird’s fiddle weeps dolefully in reply. Paul Burch’s “The Pilgrim (Chapter 33)” is startlingly upbeat, the alt-country arrangement given a subtle bluegrass-y lilt. Tom Verlaine spins “The Hawk” into gossamer threads of ambient silver and gold, while both Polara (“Just The Other Side of Nowhere”) and Oranger (“Casey’s Last Ride”) smear rich, colorful textures of dreamy psychedelica upon their selections.
Other highlights include Beaver Nelson, Mother Hips and Jon Langford with Chip Taylor, but, impossibly, none of the 17 tracks here betray the source or fall flat on their own terms, making the collection anything but a guilty pleasure. Drunk or otherwise, you’ll want to share it with your current significant other.
E-mail Fred Mills at [email protected].