VARIOUS ARTISTS – Rave On Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly died tragically at age 22.  In a pre-Beatle world, alongside Elvis Presley, he is undoubtedly one of music’s most important figures. He never had the luxury to time to grow and experiment as an artist, yet in his short career he produced songs which have spanned generations.  Had he lived, in 2011 Holly would have been 75 years old.  In a celebration of his career, ‘Rave On Buddy Holly’ brings together a host of classic and cult musicians to put their own stamp on his songs.  The fact that the artists here hail from a wide range musical backgrounds is tribute in itself to how far-reaching Holly’s best-loved material has been.

As expected, the contribution from She & Him (featuring Zooey Deschanel & M Ward) is lovely.  During their faithful run through of ‘Oh Boy’, Ward’s guitar work has a fantastic live sound, while Deschanel’s vocal has a breathy, natural quality.  If you’ve loved the She & Him albums, then you’ll find this to be a worthy addition to their catalogue of recordings.  In complete contrast, ‘Rave On’ in the hands of The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas gets rebuilt as a clanking electronic affair, absolutely doused in reverb, on both the music and vocals.  It’s ugly, yet somehow, it’s compelling listening.  The vocal melody from Holly’s original is almost intact, but otherwise it’s unrecognisable. [For a great version of this number, check out the self-titled album by The Real Kids].

Taking ‘That’ll Be The Day’ and twisting it into a low-key,  rootsy affair is a brave move from Modest Mouse.  Part back-porch stomp, part droning darkness, it becomes a number which has more in common with Califone, The Low Anthem or Wilco in a bad mood than it actually does with The Crickets.  Kid Rock’s treatment of ‘Well All Right’ has a rather surprising tasteful quality and soulful air.  Opening with parping trumpets and solid bassline, at first it sounds like the rest of the arrangement will kick in at any moment – and then it doesn’t!  Completely free of drums, most of the percussion is provided by handclaps, over which Rock’s lead vocal is a strong one, almost having a John Mellencamp quality, albeit with more black vocal stylings.  A well-arranged backing vocal really rounds things out to great effect.  For a man who has based most of his career on bravado, this is startlingly restrained.

Paul McCartney’s reading of ‘It’s So Easy’ takes the bouncy, summery qualities of The Crickets’ 1958 recording and approaches them in a measured, rocky manner.  The guitars have a fuzzy, slightly unsubtle edge, but they’re not as fuzzy as the lead vocal which is stylised and distorted.  It probably would have been safer to for Macca to approach this in a by-numbers fashion – after all, he and John Lennon cut their teeth on old rock ‘n’ roll discs – but perhaps that would have been too easy. Whatever, it’s fantastic, and especially tough sounding for Macca.  Offering no real surprises, garage band The Detroit Cobras turn the poppy ‘Heartbeat’ into a guitar jangling, sassy vocalled number, while restraining themselves enough for the song to retain its lovable, lightweight feel.  While their treatment of the song is okay, given its simplistic riff, they could have used that as a base and created something more interesting with it then they have here.

Pop/rock darlings Florence + The Machine present an interesting take on ‘Not Fade Away’.  The music is a little disjointed, very percussion heavy, with an upright bass sound like a stretching rubber band.  Flo Welch’s lead vocal is as distinctive as ever, even though for the first half of the number she’s keeping things controlled.  As the number progresses, she naturally gets louder and by the end is attacking the words at full pelt.  The clanking percussion is joined by blues-rock guitar lines at the end, over which Welch offers a little vocal accompaniment.  Perhaps what is most pleasing about this is it’s jam-session quality; very refreshing after the studio perfection of the bands multi-million selling ‘Lungs’ LP.  The legendary Graham Nash contributes a very traditional version of ‘Raining In My Heart’, which centres on his vocal with subtle piano and strings backing.  It’s pleasant, but certainly nothing more.  Similarly ordinary is ‘Words of Love’ featuring Patti Smith.  Her vocal showcases her trademark warble, yet the performance is so pedestrian.  Like Graham Nash, it offers nothing objectionable, but it’s not the best thing featured on this tribute disc, not by far.  Interestingly, My Morning Jacket’s cover of ‘True Love Ways’ is as faithful as possible, and as such, could have sounded as indifferent as Graham Nash’s number.  However, there’s something in its heart-wrenching style which really suits Jim James’s crying vocal.  Once his voice is given a more than suitable blanket of strings, it becomes a number which – while oft heard in various versions – becomes worth hearing again.

Perhaps most surprising, is soul vocalist Cee Lo Green’s re-working of the Leiber/Stoller number ‘(You’re So Square), Baby I don’t Care’.  He’s avoided all temptation to turn the number into an overwrought, over-souled affair, or even worse, a  nasty, sweaty R’n’B tour-de-force.  The basis of his version features a Holly-worthy skiffle guitar, while the vocal remains fairly light and tuneful.  With a suitably upbeat arrangement combined with a good all-round performance, Green has captured the essence of fun required, while still making it his own.   A duet by Fiona Apple and Jon Brion on ‘Everyday’ is as faithful to the original as the duo could possibly manage, right down to plinking glockenspiels.  Even so, it’s perfectly charming, suiting both vocalists rather well.  Similarly, cult hero Nick Lowe is completely respectful to ‘I’m Changin’ All Those Changes’, with a cover that features solid skiffle guitar work and upright bass.  Lowe’s vocal is very natural throughout, even with high “oo”s in a Buddy Holly style never sounding forced.

Despite being a longtime fan, not even Lowe’s performance captures Buddy Holly as well as alt-pop starlet Jenny O, whom for ‘I’m Gonna Love You Too’ really hits the spot.  With  breezy arrangement full of harmonies, shuffling drums and twanged guitars the musicians really seem to understand the mood required (and indeed, the spirit of the Holly recording) while Jenny’s vocal also has a quirkiness which is very well suited.  As always with these things, it may not quite match the original version for all round greatness, but it’s a really enjoyable run-through, nevertheless.

A tribute album wouldn’t be the same without an absolute turkey, and that honour this time around goes to Lou Reed.  New York’s favourite son takes ‘Peggy Sue’ (arguably Holly’s most famous song) and mangles it into a metallic mess.  His guitar work has the subtlety of someone playing with a broken arm, while electronic treatments fill out the sound with dirgy noises.  Over the top, Reed croons badly, going way off key regularly.  A backing vocal which sounds like an old woman makes matters worse and a really aggressive guitar solo manages to hammer out any iota of class the tune ever had.  Lou is fantastic – one of the world’s great storytellers – but this is almost a joke.  Even X’s John Doe labouring his way through ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’ is better, and that’s pushing it.  Doe’s vocals warble and squawk like a bad John Cale impersonator and his guitar work grates, but even he had the good sense to bring in a solid drummer and talented pianist to help take the focus off his wobbliness.

Those looking for completely straight ahead renditions of some of Holly’s best loved tunes might find approximately half of this disc a little challenging.  Naturally some things work far better than others and there’s very little here that could be categorized as awful.  Unlike the 2011 metal “tribute” to Frank Sinatra, at least most of these covers actually work in their own right, providing entertaining listening – and perhaps more importantly, these artists actually seem to understand (and like) Buddy Holly and what he  bought to the world of music.  ‘Rave On Buddy Holly’ is a definitely a worthwhile collection filler for anyone interested in any of the featured performers.  Lou Reed fans, however, may find themselves feeling short-changed.

June 2011