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.