Wednesday, July 27, 2011

True Love Ways / My Morning Jacket

I've always had three reasons to love Buddy Holly:  His band The Crickets inspired the name of the Beatles; his death was the chief inspiration for the iconic song of my youth "American Pie"; and, best of all, his last name was my first name.  Though he came along well before my time (okay, a little before my time), I love  his classic rock and roll sound, the way it bubbles with upbeat youthful energy.

Nevertheless, an all-star Buddy Holly tribute album to  commemorate the 75th anniversary of his birth wasn't exactly high on my list of albums to buy.  At least, not until I learned that Nick Lowe had been tapped to contribute a track.  Then, of course, that album went from a curiosity to a must-have in my book. ( Even though I am still annoyed with Nick for agreeing to open for Wilco on their fall tour -- nothing against Wilco, but really, shouldn't Nick be headlining?  And tickets have been absurdly hard to get, which isn't fair to Nick fans.)

But I digress.

So I went ahead and got the Buddy Holly tribute album, Rave On.  The line-up is an interesting mix of older and younger artists, definitely skewed toward the indie-cool part of the spectrum.  You know who I'm talking about -- The Black Keys, Fiona Apple, Florence + the Machine, the Detroit Cobras, She & Him.  I mean, Julian freakin' Casablancas -- c'mon, these people weren't picked for their Buddy Holly affinities.  Even the older artists are definitely downtown types: Lou Reed, Patti Smith.  The one true Holly acolyte is Paul McCartney, and yet his frenetic rendition of "It's So Easy" is a distinct disappointment; it loses most of the charm of Buddy's original.

As for Mr. Lowe, he acquits himself respectably, covering "Changing All Those Changes." How clever of him to pick a less well-known song, and one which would allow him to go into rockabilly territory.  As a cover it's quite decent, and much less intrusive than some of the tracks.

My top picks?  Justin Townes Earle does a neat job with "Maybe Baby," and as expected She & Him deliver "Oh Boy" with perfect retro spunk.  And Patti's "Words of Love" is absolutely fantastic, taking the tempo down a notch and going for a sincere huskiness that Buddy himself might have grown into if he hadn't died so young.  Kudos to Patti.

But my number one favorite track is this one by My Morning Jacket, who just keep on rising and rising in my estimation.Who knew when we saw them open for Ray Davies in Chicago five years ago? That day they  seemed like just another shaggy sloppy jam band, but they've won me over since then.

Take a listen:

Isn't that sweet?  I love the strings, with their 50s-vintage fills, just like the original. (In fact this arrangement is a little less glossy and hokey than Buddy's, which also lays on a sax, angel harps, and cocktail piano.)  In stripping it down, Jim James and his cohorts have really plumbed the gravity and tenderness of this song, in a way that I'd bet Buddy himself would have appreciated.  Jim's earnest warble is beautifully suited to this song; it's the antithesis to show-bizzy busyness.  And as the song builds -- dig those da-dah-da-dum string flourishes -- MMJ lets vocal harmonies flower, taking the emotions up another swoony notch.

Listening to this, it strikes me that "True Love Ways" manages somehow to be sad and happy at the same time.  How did Buddy pull that off?  That husky beginning, "Just you know why...." signals intimacy from the very start; it's like a private conversation between him and his special girl.  The guy is exulting in the private world of love that they've forged between them; nobody else will ever know but them.  At the same time, though, he's shouting it to the world, so joyful that he can't keep it to himself.

And yet, and yet . . . he still sounds tremulous, awed, disbelieving.  He admits that their life, even with this great great love, isn't perfect -- "Sometimes we'll cry / Sometimes we'll sigh,"  he remarks, tinged with awareness of mortality. It's as if he's discovering for the first time that love isn't an end in itself, but a way of being; he isn't just living in the moment anymore, but putting his love into a long-term perspective.  Astonishingly mature, when you consider how young Buddy Holly was when he wrote this, and how immature the rock and roll genre still was at the time.

I suppose a little of the sadness, too, comes from knowing that this song wasn't even released until after Buddy's tragic early death.  Of course Buddy couldn't have known that, couldn't have put that into the song.  But it still has a mysterious, elegaic quality, doesn't it?  That trademark MMJ reverb underscores  that haunting note, too.

Usually I'm an advocate of artists adding their own mark to a cover song -- I hate slavish copies of the original -- but way too many of the other artists on this album went overboard, distorting the essential sweetness and lightness of Holly's songs.  My Morning Jacket, though?  They show respect.  And if Buddy Holly doesn't deserve respect, nobody does.


NickS said...

I remember seeing a comment about the Blondie cover of "I'm Gonna Love You Too" that they did it because, at the time, (1978) people were predicting a Buddy Holly revival, which ended up not happening.

I like their version which is both respectful of the original and one of more overtly punk sounding Blondie songs.

Alex said...

There's some fine stuff on this album... and I gotta disagree with you on the McCartney cover. True, it does shed the charm of Holly's original, but it also rocks harder than McCartney has in years (maybe decades). And if that means he sounds like he's trying to impress the rockers down at the Cavern Club, maybe that's not such a bad thing!

The Jenny O. track is very tasty -- and the She & Him track has a goofy charm to it.

Bill said...

I'm with you, Holly. MMJ's version of "True Love Ways" does what a cover should do. It makes me hear the song as if for the first time.

Holly A Hughes said...

This was posted in error on another thread...

Anonymous said...
Almost every review of Rave On has praised McCartney's take on It's So Easy, as one of the few playful and imaginative interpretations of a Buddy Holly song. It's funny that most Paul fans have pretty much hated Paul's version.

I like it myself. It's wild. And It's So Easy is one of Buddy Holly's least interesting songs. It needed a shake up.


Holly A Hughes said...

Glad to hear the other McCartney fans are standing with me on this! Actually, though, I don't mind him rocking out; one of the things I like about his Fireman stuff is the fact that he does head off into the ecstatic zone. I just don't get why he threw in all that Little Richard business. It feels as if he's trying too hard. All those grunts and gasps, and that aggressively fuzzy guitar -- for me it doesn't work with the slackened tempo. And I had expected to love his contribution, so that increases my sense of let-down.

OTOH I realize that I forgot to mention Cee Lo Green's spiffy track, "(You're So Square) Baby, I Don't Care." I think it's irresisitbly fun.

Betty C. said...

75th anniversary of his death? Are you sure about that? I think you mean birth...

Holly A Hughes said...

Yup, right, thanks, got it changed.