Tribute albums seemed to be everywhere in the early ‘90s. Everyone was covering everybody. They were essentially novelty records, listened to once or twice, then filed away or offloaded at the used CD store (which is where I picked up many of the tribute albums in my collection).
I'm kind of a sucker for them, though. For me, tribute albums were a chance to get a rare track by a favourite artist or maybe discover someone new via a cover version that went above and beyond the original; a nugget of beauty that would justify the whole the purchase. For instance, a Jethro Tull tribute on Magna Carta (kings of the semi-authorized cash-in tribute album) yielded Roy Harper’s “Up the Pool,” a thing so perfect it makes me tear up.
Too often, though, with tribute albums you’re wading through inferior remakes, where the only revelation is how superior the originals were. Rock and roll flounders when it doesn’t have that spark of original inspiration. The artists who stand out on tribute albums are the ones who manage to rekindle that spark and fire up some music that plays to their own strengths.
MOJO Presents: The Madcap Laughs Again
This is a first for me, and possibly a new low: reviewing a free CD from MOJO. Actually, it’s not that free. I pay $14 for the magazine itself; I’m sure they tack on a few extra bucks for the plastic sound disc. The album (from the March issue) consists of every track from Barrett’s first solo album, The Madcap Laughs, covered by MOJO favourites both old (REM, Robyn Hitchcock, Marc Almond, Hawkwind) and new (Besnard Lakes, Field Music). This makes a nice companion to Like Black Holes in the Sky, the Barrett tribute album from 2008, which featured metal/ stoner/sludge bands covering songs drawn mainly from Piper at the Gates of Dawn and other Barrett-era Pink Floyd. What both these tribute albums reveal is the resiliency of Syd’s songs, their ability to retain their core strength no matter how wildly their interpretations vary from the originals. If anything, The Madcap Laughs Again demonstrates this quality more dramatically. The foundation of The Madcap Laughs was Syd playing his songs acoustically. According to those present, it was a victory just getting him enthused to play new material and into the studio; I imagine that any attempt to building a new band around him might have spooked him into another withdrawal. Some songs were left as they were, others were overdubbed (with great difficulty given Barrett's erratic timing and song structure) by producer David Gilmour and assorted players. These two tribute albums have given other artists a shot at fleshing out Barrett’s often skeletal songs.
The album opens with one of those magical tracks that I mentioned in the introduction. Field Music tackle “Terrapin” and just nail it, I'm glad to say, because “Terrapin” is one of my all-time favourite songs. They take the sparse, languid original and recast it as something like a Revolver-era Beatles track—it reminds me of “She Said She Said.” It's pop ecstasy and a brilliant surprise: I had no idea that the song could do that. Race Horses do a similar thing to “No Man’s Land.” The original is murky and unkempt; the cover sports pinstriped trousers and a ruffled shirt. Fab! J Mascis sounds suitably wounded on “No Good Trying,” and his deranged guitar leads stir up a storm of psychoses.
Some artists' takes on Syd are downright genial. Hawkwind’s “Long Gone” is a mad boogie raveup, while Captain Sensible’s straight reading of “Octopus” comes with a nod and a wink. In the past, my main problem with MOJO tribute albums has been the tendency for new artists to cover songs using a default “mope” setting, an easy trick to give a song a false sense of gravity. The over-sincere approach is the antithesis of the rocked-up cover version from the punk era—see The Dickies “Nights in White Satin,” et cetera. I don’t get that feeling of forced irony with this album. People projected a lot of things onto Syd Barrett: he was a madman, genius, a failure, a pioneer. This album emphasizes and reveals perhaps Barrett's most important achievement: his music’s power to endure and inspire others.
Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough (Fat Possum)
I used to play in a blues band, but I had to step away from it, not least because I couldn’t relate to the music. I’m just a white boy (a very white boy) and I don’t know nothing about no blues. Colin James must like what he does; let him fly the flag. But maybe there's hope for me and the blues. Junior Kimbrough (July 28, 1930–January 17, 1998)—he was the shit. He had that dirge/drone thing going on, a pure sound from the heart, through the fingers, and out to the world. I discovered him on a documentary called Deep Blues, where his segment haunted me for months. This 2005 album brings together disciples like Jon Spencer, The Fiery Furnaces, Mark Lanegan, and Cat Power. White folks with the indie-rockin' blues. Iggy and the Stooges bookend the collection with two takes of “You Better Run.” The band is on it, hard, but Iggy takes too much license. The best stuff lies between those two tracks. The artists are all respectful, digging hard into the some pretty impenetrable material and unearthing their own grooves and riffs, revealing many different shades of Junior’s blues. Outrageous Cherry work up “Lord Have Mercy on Me,” into some heavy shit. With that riff, Led Zeppelin would have nicked it had Junior been more famous 40 years ago. Another highlight is The Heartless Bastards' soulful version of "Done Got Old." Erika Wennerstrom's got quite the voice; she makes you believe it. This whole album is a rewarding project no matter how you come at it—as a Junior Kimbrough fan, as a fan of the blues, or of any of the artists featured here. The liner notes say it best: "Though the world doesn’t need another tribute record, it does need to know about Junior Kimbrough."