Music producer Hal Willner kicked the tribute album craze into high gear in 1988 with Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films, the follow-up to his underappreciated tribute to jazz great Charles Mingus. The disc featured Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, Betty Carter, Suzanne Vega and others delivering radical renditions of Disney music classics. Waits' dirge spin on "Heigh Ho (The Seven Dwarf's Marching Song)" was so extreme that Disney attorneys tried to stop its release, arguing that Waits had changed the lyrics. He hadn't. But his growling vocals, surreal soundscapes and unrelenting hammer beats helped launch a two-decade-long flood of tribute projects, most under the public's radar, that have devolved into a recent string tribute to Godsmack.
God save us.
After a string of critically acclaimed tribute discs, Willner announced a few years ago that he'd had enough of the tribute craze. But he bounced back last year to offer the esoteric Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys, allowing Richard Thompson, Nick Cave and Loudon Wainwright III, among others, to unleash their inner pirates.
Now a half-dozen new tribute CDs suggest that the tribute CD as a genre is here to stay, and it's a mixed bag at best.
Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur is getting a lot of mainstream attention, due to a big-name lineup, use of John Lennon's songbook and the chance to contribute to starving refugees fleeing the genocide in Sudan. U2, R.E.M., Christina Aguilera, Los Lonely Boys, Avril Lavigne, Jackson Browne and the Black Eyed Peas are among those who have hopped on board.
Musically speaking, there is unfortunately little to recommend this disc. It probably seemed like a stroke of genius pairing rock progeny Jakob Dylan and Dhani Harrison ("Gimme Some Truth"), but the song is just too big for these neophytes. And who conceived of joining Aerosmith and Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars? Even the quirky art band the Flaming Lips go down in flames on their unlikely cover of "(Just Like) Starting Over." The few highlights include Green Day ("Working Class Hero"), Corinne Bailey Rae ("I'm Losing You") and Regina Spektor ("Real Love").
Far more entertaining is The Sandinista! Project: A Tribute to the Clash. This two-CD love song to one of the most ambitious triple-album sets of the 1980s reaches artistically and more often than not hits the mark. Members of the Mekons and many of the insurgent-country artists that populate the feisty Bloodshot label roster make up the core of this project. The Smithereens, Camper Van Beethoven, former Clash collaborator Mikey Dread and Paisley Underground demi-god Steve Wynn also all get in their licks. The results are uneven, just like the original recording, but well worth checking out.
Endless Highway: The Music of the Band arrives on the 30th anniversary of Martin Scorsese's documentary The Last Waltz, which chronicled the Band's farewell concert in San Francisco. The CD's lineup includes the Allman Brothers Band, Guster, Roseanne Cash, Death Cab for Cutie, Jack Johnson, My Morning Jacket, Jackie Greene and Jakob Dylan. Given that the Band's idiosyncratic music was cloaked in an almost mystical aura, almost the holy grail of Americana repertory, these artists manage to pull off one of the year's best tribute discs.
Two other new releases underscore the pitfalls of sounding either too much like a really good cover band--or a really bad one. The Smithereens often infuse their production with Beatles-esque flourishes, so it must have seemed like a good idea to release an album of Beatles covers. Meet the Smithereens is a track-by-track rendering of the Fab Four's 1964 debut album, and it sounds, well, just like the Beatles. If you own the original, pass on this vanity project.
Freeway Jam: To Beck and Back is a tribute to British axe slinger Jeff Beck by guitar shredders, including Steve Morse, John Scofield, Eric Johnson, Mike Stern, Warren Haynes, Greg Howe and Walter Trout. But in their hands, Beck's freewheeling rock instrumentals sound tepid, uninspired, like these players don't want to one-up their guitar hero.
Still a laidback approach can work. Your Songs: The Music of Elton John teams jazz heavyweights Pietro Tonolo (sax), Gil Goldstein (piano and accordion), Steve Swallow (bass) and Paul Motian (drums) on a pleasant set of dinner jazz that never equals the sum of its parts but still takes these songs into new terrain while giving the listener a fresh appreciation for great songwriting.
And ain't that what tribute albums are all about?