A Tribute to Music
When is a tribute album not a tribute album? Quite often, actually, depending on exactly how you define the beast. A handful of new releases serve as cases in point of the different approaches that can be taken in assembling a collection of songs written by a particular artist.
Though the modern concept of the tribute album involves newly recorded interpretations of a songwriter’s catalogue by various contemporary artists, an equally valid and often more revealing method is to turn to the archives. This proves especially worthy when dealing with major figures in popular music, as they have invariably inspired a trail of covers that illuminate both the breadth of their influence and the depth of their history.
Perhaps no one is a better target for such a project than Jimmy Webb, arguably the premier American songwriter of the latter half of the 20th century. As such, it’s no surprise that Tunesmith: The Songs Of Jimmy Webb, a new two-disc set on the Australian label Raven Records (www.ravenrecords.com.au), is actually the third of its kind. The first, Up, Up And Away: The Songs Of Jimmy Webb, surfaced in 1999 on the U.K. label Sequel; in 2000 came And Someone Left The Cake Out In The Rain on Debutante (a Polygram U.K. imprint).
Both of the U.K. releases were single-disc collections; Tunesmith proves more impressive and interesting simply by virtue of being twice as long. To really begin to make a dent in surveying the territory Webb’s career has traversed, a double-disc set is almost mandatory; a box would be better, though perhaps beyond sound marketing sense.
The chief shortcoming of the U.K. releases is that they focus on either the best-known tracks (Debutante’s) or the curious obscurities (Sequel’s). Tunesmith does a fair job of balancing the hits — Glen Campbell’s “Galveston”, the Fifth Dimension’s “Up, Up And Away”, Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park” — with lesser-heard but worthy gems such as Scott Walker’s “If Ships Were Made To Sail”, Ian Matthews’ “Met Her On A Plane”, and Arlo Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Nights”.
Even so, the sheer volume of what’s out there, combined with the inevitable roadblocks in licensing tracks from a myriad of sources, leaves any such compilation wanting for more. It’s hard not to rue the absence of, say, Waylon Jennings’ spirited “If You See Me Getting Smaller”, or Amy Grant’s poignant “If These Walls Could Speak”, or the infectiously buoyant renditions of “Orange Air” and “Rosecrans Boulevard” by Zumpano (a mid-’90s precursor band to the New Pornographers). But such oversights might only be apparent to the kind of obsessive collector who has more than 700 different versions of Webb songs on his shelvesa
A handful of artists (Campbell, Harris, the Fifth Dimension, Thelma Houston, the Supremes, and most recently Michael Feinstein) have recorded albums consisting entirely of Webb tunes — which brings up another way to go about making a tribute album. In contrast to the frequently far-ranging feel of compilations, these single-artist discs generally strive for a more cohesive presentation (think the Bottle Rockets’ Songs Of Sahm, or Tim O’Brien’s Red On Blonde.)
In this corner, we find two new small-time tributes to big-time artists: Cowboy Johnson’s A Grain Of Sand, featuring twelve songs penned by the late Mickey Newbury (MoonHouse Records, www.moonhouserecords.com), and Dan Dugmore’s Off White Album (Double D Records, www.dandugmore.com), a pedal-steel salute to the Beatles.
A Grain Of Sand, produced by former Jimmie Dale Gilmore sideman Chris Gage, is a subtle but satisfying record. Johnson’s easygoing voice is well-suited to his choice of material from the Newbury oeuvre; he leans toward tunes that lend themselves to laid-back tempos and sweetly swinging country arrangements accented by fiddle and pedal steel.
Johnson sounds most at home on “Country Boy Saturday Night”, “How I Love Them Old Songs” and “If You Ever Get To Houston”, which play to the genial tone and welcoming warmth of his delivery. Those qualities tend to polish a little too much edge off of darker numbers such as “Frisco Depot” and “Wish I Was”, which carry a dramatic weight in Newbury’s originals that disappears here.
Though Johnson’s choices include both staples and sleepers from the Newbury songbook, he doesn’t take a shot at anything from the 2002 release A Long Road Home, recorded just before Newbury’s death and featuring some of the finest work of his career, most notably “So Sad”, which is crying out to be covered. (I ain’t gonna stop harping about it till it happens, so somebody just do it already.) But such oversights might only be apparent to the kind of obsessive collector who once put together his own Newbury tribute albuma
Dugmore’s task with the Off White Album was decidedly different. A Nashville studio ace who’s played on hundreds of albums, Dugmore sought out songs from the Fab Four’s records featuring vocal melodies that would translate to pedal steel well enough to stand on their own as instrumentals.
By and large, he succeeds admirably. The result may be more of a soothing soundscape than any sort of grand artistic statement, but it’s beautifully played and produced, with Dugmore handling all of the musicianship and recording himself. All of the songs are familiar — “Yesterday” and “Something” perhaps a little too familiar — but there are inspired choices nonetheless, especially the Abbey Road track “Because”, which floats and soars on the wings of Dugmore’s soft yet deft steel touch.
Finally, one new release exemplifies the more standard tribute-album model. Likely no band has contributed tracks to more tribute albums over the years than the Young Fresh Fellows, kingpins of the Pacific Northwest music scene since, well, before there was a Pacific Northwest music scene. As such, it seems fitting that a Seattle label (BlueDisguise) has finally given the Fellows their due with a tribute of their own, aptly titled This One’s For The Fellows.
The lineup largely skews toward the band’s home turf, with likely suspects such as close Fellows friends the Presidents of the USA, longtime Fellows producer Conrad Uno (with his wife Emily Bishton), and the duo of John Ramberg & Christy McWilson (leader Scott McCaughey’s wife and Minus 5 bandmate, respectively). Many of the participants are unknowns, at least to me (Eric Kassel, Louden Swain, Marshall Artist), but there are also a few bigger-name ringers in the mix (Robyn Hitchcock, the Silos, Steve Malkmus backed by the Maroons), and plenty of inbetweens (the Figgs, Mendoza Line, Charlie Chesterman).
The vibe, appropriately, is pretty much one big rock ‘n’ roll party. There aren’t so much revelations or standouts as there is a happy-go-lucky sentiment about the package as a whole. The participants have also chosen well; though I do wish someone had tackled my all-time Fellows fave “Carrothead”, much credit is due for the inclusion of such sleeper selections as “Lost Track Of Time”, “Unimaginable Zero Summer” and “I Hate Everything” alongside the more obvious non-hits as “Get Outta My Cave”, “How Much About Last Night Do You Remember”, and “Hillbilly Drummer Girl”.
It all winds down to a perfect closer (not counting the bonus track featuring McCaughey fronting the Mono Men), with infamous Spokane garage band the Makers offering a surprisingly tender take on “Don’t You Wonder How It Ends” — tagged brilliantly with the discordant notes of the Fellows’ trademark riff which they dubbed “The Do You Care Theme”.
Clearly, all these folks care plenty. No one deserves their appreciation more than a band that has taken part in tributes to the Sonics, the Zombies, the Dictators, the Bee Gees, the Jam, the Damned, Sam the Sham, Alex Chilton, the Bobby Fuller Four, Donovan, Ernest Noyes Brookingsaand, yes, even the Banana Splits.