Two tribs, joined at the McCartney: Sir Paul's the subject of one (Listen to What the Man Said) and featured on the other, a loving, star-spangled redo of Ian Dury and the Blockheads' 1977 erstwhile masterpiece of working-class lust and despair, New Boots & Panties!! The former's of moderate interest to those who like musicians but don't much like music; never have the words been uttered, "I'd really like to hear 'Junk' performed by members of Barenaked Ladies and The Lilac Time." The subtitle may, in fact, be intended as irony: Popular Artists Pay Tribute to the Music of Paul McCartney, the impact of which hits with a dull thud when you start trying to figure out just who the hell Virgos, John Faye Power Trip, the Merrymakers and SR-71 are anyway. Though, to be fair, it's the lesser-knowns and the relatively anonymous who render Listen listenable. John Faye all but rescues "Coming Up" from the bad-idea bin; McCartney doing disco was like Ringo doing Rachmaninoff, made worse when Sir P. decided it was clever-cute to boot. Faye cuts out the guts and offers only sinew and bone--or meaty guitars instead of gaunt synths--and for the first time it's possible to listen to the hooky tune and not the hokey desperation that rendered McCartney II cutout-bin bait upon its release in 1980. Same goes for Sloan's fleshed-out, roiling "Waterfalls," which always sounded like a demo that crawled, pathetically, from the bedroom.
Like most tributes, Listen to What the Man Said, whose proceeds go to the Dallas-based Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, has more misses than hits; it's Gabe Kapler having a good season. For every reasonable deconstruction of goo (Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey's "Dear Friend" off the mild Wild Life; Linus of Hollywood's Pet Sounds-y "Warm and Beautiful"; They Might Be Giants' almost shrugged "Ram On"), there are two or three missteps on a land mine. Chief among the guilty are Robyn Hitchcock ("Let Me Roll It"), who thinks this is a Beatles comp and really needs to stick to ruining his own albums; Matthew Sweet ("Every Night"), who gives up before he steps in the ring; Owsley ("Band on the Run"), who hits all the right notes without recognizing every one was wrong the first time; and Semisonic ("Jet"), whose mere existence puzzles learned scholars. But how does one expect any band to have much success with this mush? Trying to construct a solid tribute from the likes of "My Brave Face," "No More Lonely Nights" and "Too Many People" is like building a fortress out of sponge. Whatever good will the man still engenders (and there's plenty, given the retroactive praise heaped upon this year's double-disc Wingspan, ahem, best-of) disappears whenever you actually listen to what the man wrote and sang. Fact is, this was a fixed fight from the jump.
But McCartney can still sing the shit out of stuff that isn't, as evidenced by his rollicking turn on Ian Dury's "I'm Partial to Your Abracadabra"; he's Roger Daltrey channeling Gene Vincent, a rockabilly warrior run amok in Pubtown, U.K. Funny thing is, the legend's reduced to bit player on this delightful remake of Dury's Stiff Records debut, which made the late-great (Dury died of cancer in March 2000) a household name in, oh, Essex. The notion of remaking an entire album, from start to finish, is tricky biz; divvying up the material risks diminishing style, theme and content. Dury's single, and singular, voice made the disco-punk-funk-rock-and-soul New Boots a kick, but how will it work when the material's parsed out to such disparate blokes and birds as Sinead O'Connor, Robbie Williams, Billy Bragg, Catatonia's Cerys Matthews and Madness? Quite well, actually, as the famous and familiar render accessible material once as British as cricket and milk in your tea. Dury was, often, as comprehensible to American ears as a Swede speaking French. This cancer-benefit collection, on which the Blockheads offer backup on all but two tracks, is as listenable as summer rain pelting a window pane.
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O'Connor, discovering a sense of humor amid the ruins of a self-destructed career, takes the blue-collar sleaze out of "Wake Up and Make Love With Me" and renders it as slinky, irresistible come-on. "It's lovely when I'm sleeping, but wide awake is best," she purrs in a horny morning mood, begging for a "proper wriggle in the naughty naked nude." Williams, a bloke of Dury's from way back, has never sounded so likable as he does on "Sweet Gene Vincent," a boisterous whiff of criticism aimed at the nostalgia fetishist. For the first time, perhaps, he doesn't try to overwhelm his material; with the Blockheads frolicking behind him, Williams lets the song come to him. So, too, do Madness, who perform "My Old Man" as though it were something from the band's estimable, if neglected, back catalog. It's as if Dury's ghost has brought out the best of those lined up for the cause: McCartney sounds like a kid playing in the Cavern, Billy Bragg ("Bellericay Dickie") shuffles and sneers like the punk he used to be, Wreckless Eric ("Clevor Trever") lives up to his name, while Shane McGowen ("Plaistow Patricia") lives down to his rep as a slinger of broken-bottle songs. (True to its source material, half the disc sounds as though it was recorded in a bar, three hours past closing time; it's less a tribute than it is a drunken wake turned open-mike night.) Hard to discern better from best, but Cerys Matthews' contribution, a gender-bending "If I Was With a Woman" that doesn't compensate for sex change, tops the pops: "If I was with a woman, I'd make her quite unhappy, especially when she did not want me to," she coos over an organ-drenched Philly-soul groove. "If I was with a woman, I'd make believe I loved her/All the time I would not like her much." Dury played it crooked, as an innocent, if a tad nasty, joke. From Matthews' mouth, with its cruel smile, it sounds plain ruthless...and like great fun.