By WARREN PEDERSON
Blast San Francisco Bureau
It's hard to pinpoint the time when tribute albums went from being an endearing salute to an artist to an obnoxious rehash by lesser talents. Was it with the "Tapestry Revisited" tribute to Carole King? The "You Got Lucky" tribute to Tom Petty? The "Stars and Stripes" country tribute to the Beach Boys?
Once thing's for sure: The tribute CD concept has run its course and exemplifies the lack of new musical ideas as this sorry decade draws to a close.
A good tribute CD - and yes, there are a few - opens your mind to new possibilities for familiar songs. Arguably the finest tribute album, "For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson," gathered diverse artists such as Jimmy Webb, Aimee Mann and Brian Wilson for rich interpretations of one of the finest songwriters of the pop era. Even the Kiss-arranged "Kiss My Ass," undoubtedly the best titled tribute CD, provided a funky array of acts such as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Lenny Kravitz and Garth Brooks doing unique versions of familiar tunes.
A bad tribute CD makes you realize how much better the original version was. Do we really need to hear Wilson Phillips' cover of "Daniel" or Jon Bon Jovi's take on "Levon" on the "Two Rooms" tribute to Elton John and Bernie Taupin? "Two Rooms" is as bland a tribute as they come, with 16 performers churning out "Star Search"-caliber covers of pop originals that should have never been tinkered with.
The irony of the tribute album is that if the artist is so talented as to
merit a tribute, aren't those covering the artist's songs inferior by comparison? Isn't there a better way to honor a songwriter or a band than by covering their songs? What "tribute" is there in saluting an original artist by tampering with the creator's vision?
It should come as no surprise that many of the better tribute CDs were for artists who were better as songwriters than as performers. Few would point to Leonard Cohen, one of the most brilliantly caustic songwriters to rise out of the '60s folk era, as an example of fine vocalizing, yet he has inspired two highly listenable tribute albums. The better of the two, "I'm Your Fan," demonstrated Cohen's tribute to alternative rock with covers by R.E.M., Lloyd Cole and Ian McCulloch. The more commercial "Tower of Song" provided less daring, though still worthy, covers by Don Henley, Sting and Elton John. Indeed, Jennifer Warnes' "Famous Blue Raincoat" album of Cohen covers shows the harmonious results of the proper pairing of composer and performer.
On the other hand, the "Time and Love" tribute to Laura Nyro - who was better known as a writer of hits for Barbra Streisand and the Fifth Dimension than for her excellent solo albums - makes me realize just what a fine singer we lost last year. Only Suzanne Vega's take on "Buy and Sell" and Rosanne Cash's cover of "Save the Children" keep me from running to the shelf to hear the far superior originals.
Occasionally a tribute album will come as a total surprise. "If I Were a Carpenter," an alt-rock tribute to Karen and Richard, should have been a bad joke that wouldn't hold up after repeated tellings. But the sincerity - and originality - of the tracks by Matthew Sweet, Sonic Youth, the cranberries and Shonen Knife are truly infectious. Granted, not every cover works (Cracker's slow-motion "Rainy Days and Mondays" is the most obvious example), but the sheer novelty makes this a fresh breath of Gen-X air.
But for every worthwhile tribute album, there seem to be a half-dozen disposable discs. Too often tribute albums are hastily assembled, poorly organized and generically produced. Can anyone honestly play "Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles," "Welcome to My Nightmare: A Tribute to Alice Cooper" or "No Prima Donna: The Songs of Van Morrison" without longing for the original? There is nothing inherently wrong with artists such as Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithfull and Lisa Stansfield covering the work of a Celtic soul genius like Morrison, but these covers belong on their own albums rather than on a tribute CD, where they are lost in a field of mediocrity.
Indeed, many of the finer CDs featuring covers are not "tribute" albums at all, but compilations of tunes covered by other artists throughout their careers. The British import "Elton John Songbook" avoided the quickie sound of "Two Rooms" by collecting covers recorded from 1967 to 1993. Unforgettable remakes by Aretha Franklin, Billy Paul and Judy Collins are eclectically mingled with covers by such obscure acts as the Bread & Beer Band, Plastic Penny and Mr. Blue. Likewise, "Love Gets Strange: The Songs of John Hiatt" featured passionate catalog cuts by Rosanne Cash, Marshall Crenshaw and Emmylou Harris.
Too many tribute albums are marred by blatant commercialism. While Elektra's 40th anniversary tribute, "Rubáiyát," featured some novel covers of catalog tunes by the label's current acts such as the Cure, Tracy Chapman and 10,000 Maniacs in 1990, aren't two CDs a bit much? Atlantic Records may have thought it was saluting Led Zeppelin by having acts from its roster cover the immortal tunes of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page on "Encomium," but the remakes by such forgettable acts as Hootie & the Blowfish, Duran Duran and Blind Melon are an insult to one of the most influential bands in rock history. "Encomium" added salt to the wound Atlantic opened when it assembled 12 virtual unknowns to remake the band's most recognizable song on "Stairways to Heaven."
One of the most annoying trends in tribute releases is the symphonic cover. Pink Floyd, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Abba, Yes and Queen have all fallen victim to orchestral remakes, which are generally noteworthy only for their novelty. Classic rock songs are already widely available on Muzak, and these symphonic remakes fail to capture the drama of the original.
Undoubtedly the most obnoxious trend in tribute CDs is the salute to the non-musician. These generally feature songs that reflect the "spirit" or "era" of the subject, but the tunes were not written with the subject in mind. The exploitive "Diana, Princess of Wales: Tribute," in an attempt to fill two CDs, scrapped together Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over," R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" and Puff Daddy's "I'll Be Missing You" (written for the Notorious B.I.G.) in an ill-conceived "tribute" to the late princess. It's significant that the only song that could genuinely be considered a Diana tribute, Elton John's "Candle in the Wind 1997," is not included here. Similarly, last year's "Keith Haring: A Retrospective, The Music of His Era" featured catalog cuts by Diana Ross, Junior Vasquez and Gwen Guthrie that were somehow supposed to represent the trendy artist who died of AIDS.
Tribute CDs have largely failed artistically, commercially and sentimentally. It's unlikely they will become collector's items. More often than not, they insult the integrity of the artist they attempt to honor. Let's hope that in the next millennium, we view them as an artifact of the '90s and provide the opportunity for original music to thrive.