VARIOUS ARTISTS – Listen To Me (Buddy Holly Tribute)

Had he lived, in September 2011, Charles Hardin Holley would have been celebrating his seventy-fifth birthday. To mark the occasion, in June, Buddy gained a tribute album celebrating his life and music. ‘Rave On Buddy Holly’ featured a whole host of rock and pop artists, each reimagining Holly’s songs in their own image. For Buddy’s more “traditional” fans, this album gained a mixed response, due to its favouring exposure to musicians from an alternative rock background. Comments like “travesty” and “spinning in his grave” were bandied about among the more narrow-minded listener. However, what they failed to appreciate is that the biggest travesty on the album did not come from the likes of The Strokes, Detroit Cobras or Black Keys, but from a well established artiste: Lou Reed’s ceremonial trashing of ‘Peggy Sue’ has to be one of the worst things ever committed to record in the name of tribute. However, regardless of what Buddy’s fans thought of that tribute album, it’s possible that Holly himself would have been overjoyed that his music was still important to people over half a century after his passing. While he may not have enjoyed the interpretations of his songs, he too, possibly would have been happy that his music had meant so much to such a broad audience.

Three months later, ‘Listen To Me’, a second tribute album appeared, this time with Holly’s widow’s blessing. If ‘Rave On Buddy Holly’ was geared towards the NME reader, this second tribute is aimed at a different audience, an older crowd – possibly the discerning Mojo enthusiast. For those who baulked at the idea of ‘Rave On Buddy Holly’, ‘Listen To Me’ is a disc which some will find more sympathetic to Holly’s songs. It features an impressive array of artistes, though it must be said, the end result is largely restrained.

One of this tribute’s edgiest performances comes from New York pop-rockers Cobra Starship and their rendition of ‘Peggy Sue’. They retain most of the original tune, but add a little of their own flair. This comes by way of a selection of new wave keyboards, a dual vocal and a heavily processed guitar solo. It’s radio friendly enough and manages to bring the tune into the twenty-first century without losing all of its spirit [fellow New Yorker, Mr Reed, please take note]. Patrick Stump may have an alternative background through his connections with Fall Out Boy, but his solo recording of ‘Everyday’ is syrupy and quite ordinary. The use of xylophones and backing vocals is pleasing – and the track is worth hearing for those – but Stump’s lead vocal lacks the power of some of his previous work. You’re never likely to skip it, but it lacks that certain something it should have had.

As said, for the most part, the other artists featured on ‘Listen To Me’ are of a more mature persuasion (for that read “suitable for more undemanding audiences”). Natalie Merchant offers a simply lovely rendition of ‘Learning The Game’ which blends solo voice and piano with an occasional violin accompaniment. The music is soft and respectful, but it’s Merchant’s voice here which is the big draw. Her slightly weary, slightly warbly vocal line pulls every ounce of heartbreak from the song’s lyric. Singer/actress Zooey Deschanel also scores one of the album’s best results with a version of ‘It’s So Easy’ which is very rich in the vocal department. Her lead voice is strong and as natural as ever, but she’s also joined by a choir of backing voices which more than compliment her. With her recordings as one half of She & Him (featured on the “other” Buddy tribute), things are often quite sparse, rarely allowing for such swirling gorgeousness. ‘It’s So Easy’ has rarely sounded so appealing.

Beatle enthusiast and full time beard wearer Jeff Lynne takes hold of the reins on a version of ‘Words of Love’. It’s pleasant enough, but those familiar with the ELO man’s work beyond the 70s know exactly what they’re in for here: the guitars ring out crisply over the top of a horribly compressed drum sound, making the track sound like a Traveling Wilburys out-take (albeit one with a flat vocal). Interestingly enough, though, it doesn’t sound as much like a Wilburys cast off as Lyle Lovett’s version of ‘Well All Right’! Lovett’s country tinged vocals are very well suited to this number, and it’s possible to imagine Roy Orbison giving it a similar turn during the twilight of his career. It’s the arrangement here which really works though, and a superb blend of acoustic guitars and mandolins sounds tailor made for the song.

The hopelessly overrated Imelda May lends her retro schtick to a ‘I’m Lookin’ For Someone To Love’, where the high points include a muted trumpet solo and rock ‘n’ roll guitar solo. None of the kudos here should in any way be given to May herself, who severely lacks the chops her chosen genre of music requires. Seriously, why does this woman’s bland take on rock ‘n’ roll lead to praise being heaped upon her, when there are other retro artists out there who’ve either been denied just as deserving a credit or, rather more unfortunately, fallen by the wayside? The god-like Jackson Browne’s velvety vocals are a joy to hear on a softly orchestrated ‘True Love Ways’, however. Granted, he’s not pushing the envelope musically or vocally in any way, but the song suits him very much indeed. Jackson Browne’s many fans will find this cover a delight for sure.

Linda Ronstadt lends her distinctive and much loved voice to an otherwise uninspired run through of ‘That’ll Be The Day’, while Brian Wilson stamps his trademark style on ‘Listen To Me’ with similarly unsurprising results. Elsewhere, Ringo Starr and his band sound like they’re having fun with a slightly calypso tinged take of ‘Think It Over’. It’s been said many times, but Starr isn’t the world’s most gifted vocalist, but what he lacks vocally, he makes up for with enthusiasm – and this is no exception. For those looking for someone else to reinterpret more of Holly’s sadder tones, Chris Isaak does not disappoint, as his crying vocals lend an expected amount of class to a version of ‘Crying Waiting Hoping’. With a sparse arrangement which centres around Isaak’s overly emotive voice and his retro guitar sounds, this certainly rivals Natalie Merchant in the heartbreak stakes.

The disc closes with an unnecessary and altogether pointless novelty entry. Legendary comedian Eric Idle hams his way through a rendition of ‘Raining In My Heart’ which, at first, combines a spoken vocal and soft string accompaniment with a few sound effects. As the thunder claps, Idle pretends to cry. And with that, things move into the mid section which replaces the soft strings with jazzy electric piano, before Idle turns everything into a grotesquely annoying knees-up. Just horrible.

While the magic of Holly’s songs shines through, most of these covers come across rather safe (Idle is not included in this overview, since his effort seems rather contrived and tacked on the end as an afterthought). Most of the performances are respectful – stately, even – but compared to ‘Rave On Buddy Holly’ it’s a rather predictable collection of songs. That doesn’t necessarily make it worse – for some listeners, it represents a better vision of what they’d expect from such a tribute, and is certainly a top collection filler if picked up at the right price.

September 2011