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Various Artists – [Album]

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Tuesday, 30 April 2013

If the measure of a songwriter's talent and influence can be found in the list of performers who agree to appear on a tribute album to him, then it's possible that John Denver might be the dark horse winner for being the most influential songwriter of his generation. The proof of possibility can be found on The Music Is You; not at all scavenging for talent (contributors include Evan Dando, My Morning Jacket, Dave Matthews, Lucinda Williams and J Mascis – for starters), a fantastic group of musicians delightedly agreed to lay down their own styles (for the most part – more on that later), pick up acoustic guitars and sing sparely adorned, high and lonesome out of respect for the guy who was arguably the trump card against the PMRC when they lobbied to clean up pop, incited because the censors found something wrong with a Colorado mountaintop. Here, each contributing musician graciously plays it straight and (with one exception) does not try to morph any of Denver's songs to make them their own. Each player simply tries to do the songs all the justice they're able.

The gentle way with which these songs get presented begins perfectly as My Morning Jacket strips any and all of the electric elements from their sound and adopts a perfectly wistful and unironic air to offer their impression of “Leaving On A Jet Plane” to listeners. Here, singer Jim James has a bit of difficulty with the key that the song was written in (his register falters a couple of times), but that neither he nor the rest of the band make any attempt to alter the song or its arrangement to better suit them is admirable. Here, listeners are given the impression that these songs are not the artists' own, so they're intent on playing them with the utmost respect to their author; particular standouts like Allen Stone's version of “Rocky Mountain High,” Brandi Carlile's duet with Emmylou Harris on “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” Train's take of “Sunshine On My Shoulders” and Evan Dando's cover of “Looking For Space” all showcase the song and the singers' will to bow to it, and those listening will find it easy to appreciate these songs, just as the musicians playing them certainly do.

Of course, in the spirit of there needing to be one in every crowd, J Mascis (who should have been the easy call for an awesome take here – his vocal register closely matches Denver's) turns up the volume on his cover of “Prisoners” and, with Sharon Van Etten, holds the dubious distinction of being the ones who missed the point here. With everyone else turned down, Mascis' pigheaded desire to turn up and stand out backfires and illustrates by negative example that the power of these songs lies in their delicacy and poetic bent – not their potential anthemia.

Happily, Mascis' and Van Etten's performance is the exception to the rule and everyone else who contributed to The Music Is You lobs out some exceptional performances, making the greatest surprise become the songs which were omitted from the track list (most conspicuously, “Thank God I'm A Country Boy” and “Calypso” are absent). Those who complain really aren't seeing the forest for all the goddamned trees though; The Music Is You is really missing nothing because those who contributed were willing to put their own egos aside and really serve the songs. That fact plays both obviously and beautifully here; it makes for a genuine and sweet tribute to be admired.

Artist:

www.johndenver.com/

Album:

The Music Is You
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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Various Artists – [Album]

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Sunday, 04 October 2009

There has always been a single binding problem with tribute/charity/all-star compilations; the cast might be huge, some of the performances might be inspired, there may be phenomenal moments laced in that prove to be defining for one artist or another, but the set is only as good as the weakest moment on it. For whatever perverse reason, listeners always remember the 'suck' before they remember the 'sublime.'

With that in mind, it's questionable how well 7 Worlds Collide – a compilation benefiting Oxfam International – will be received. On one hand, the methodology behind making the set is really cool in a “The Band with Bob Dylan,” “Traveling Wilburys” or even “Golden Smog” sort of way; the members of Wilco hold court over a party of pop, roots and rock musicians in an effort to help eradicate global poverty? It's all very noble and, to their credit, the members of Wilco steadfastly uphold their end of the deal. At least one member of Wilco (but usually several) plays on each of the album's twenty-four songs and it works out okay, but where the set trips itself is when the singer on a given track just doesn't suit.

The upside (or down, depending on how one looks at it) is that 7 Worlds Collide implodes precisely where it makes sense that it would. Wilco has long-since established itself as a very working class-identified troupe and, no matter how their music may have mutated over the years, it has worked because they always stay true to those basic roots. Where this album collapses is when that established sound gets ruptured  by a gloss-treated singer; envision, for example, taking KT Tunstall or Lisa Germano out to the homestead to show them around. They'd stick out like a pickle in a punchbowl – and that's exactly what happens on “Reptile,” “Black Silk Ribbon” and “Hazel Black” – conspicuously, the tracks to which those singers contribute. An even dicier proposition would be  Smiths/Modest Mouse guitarist Johnny Marr but, astonishingly, he manages not to embarrass himself or the comp with his vocal contributions, they simply come off as static. In this case, being noble is all well, good and even occasionally interesting from a 'how good could this possibly sound?!' standpoint, and while these are the weakest moments on the record, they're at least marginally palatable or imminently forgettable and don't exponentially detract from the proceedings.

Not so surprisingly, the set is at it's best when Wilco (or at least some of the members of it) take the wheel on the proceedings. With some additional help from the Finns (who are the dark horse runners for the most emotive singers here, and Wilco furnishes them with sympathetic arrangements in “Little By Little,” “Learn TO Crawl” and “Red Wine Bottle”), “You Never Know” makes the most of a far more family-oriented and jovial atmosphere than it had on Wilco (The Album) and you can almost hear the players smiling at each other as they go, while the dim regret and deep love expressed in “What Could Have Been” is knee-buckling. Other members of the band pick up the mic and take a turn too here – Pat Sansone's “Don't Forget Me” is a heart breaker and absolutely one of the highlights of this set, while John Stirratt's turn on “Over & Done” is a perfectly respectable moment – and the combination of all of those voices adds up to a pretty incredible moment; like any family endeavor, not every second is perfect, but in the end it proves to be rewarding for everyone involved and will surely fuel some fond memories.

Organization:

For more information on Oxfam International, go to www.oxfam.org/

Album:

7 Worlds Collide – The Sun Came Out
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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