Out There

Tom Waits and John Denver get the tribute treatment

Take Me Home: A Tribute to John Denver
Various artists
(Badman Recordings)

New Coat of Paint: Songs of Tom Waits
Various artists
(Manifesto Records)

Turns out they've run out of musicians to fete -- that, or Henry Rollins is still hard at work finishing his tribute to Jim Nabors featuring X, the Butthole Surfers, and Ruth Buzzi. How else to explain Take Me Home, a tribute to the late, great Henry John Deutchendorf, who left us on a private plane in 1997? Or, for that matter, New Coat of Paint, the second Tom Waits homage in five years. And to think, they had it so right the first time out, when they lined up Frente!, Magnapop, 10,000 Maniacs, and Violent Femmes for Step Right Up. Nothing looks for and finds the heart of Saturday night more than the phrase "And now, Gordon Gano..." If The Man isn't singing his own, then it's time to stub out that last smoke and take a hike. Tom Waits for no one (haha) save himself.

Ah, but the hipster brigade is out in full effect for Round Two -- if, by hipster, one means "artists who don't sell." There's Lydia Lunch squawking her way through "Heartattack and Vine" with Nels Cline, ex-Stray Cat Lee Rocker applying thinner to "New Coat of Paint," Neko Case sending "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis" without a stamp, and erstwhile Motown lecher Andre Williams dolling himself up in "Pasties and a G-String" with help from The Sadies. It appears everyone has a pretty good idea of how to cover Waits: Hire out for a string section and sing through your anus. It works for some folks (ex-Geraldine Fibber Carla Bozulich gets "On the Nickel" and has four cents left over), but the rest just sound destined for the cutout bin, where this will no doubt be released directly.

So go figure that the Denver tribute is the keeper. Probably has to do with the talent round-up: Any disc featuring Bonnie Prince Will Oldham, that dogger Rachel Haden, Low, Red House Painters (whose Mark Kozelek trudged down the country road to assemble this beast), and Tarnation (who knew?) is bound to be worth at least one listen before it gets sold back. When you pit talent against treacle in a steel death-cage match, ability wins two out of three times. So "Poems, Prayers, and Promises" sounds like a winsome leftover from that dog, Bonnie Prince Billy's "The Eagle and the Hawk" becomes a proper dirge, "I'm Sorry" need no longer apologize for its existence, and "Leaving on a Jet Plane" no longer sounds like a camp sing-along. Even "Annie's Song," performed by Sunshine Club (the name's no doubt meant to be ironic), is bearable -- though your mom will still like it better than you ever will.

Robert Wilonsky

 
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