Copy Cats

In the tired realm of tribute albums, imitation is the sincerest form of flatulence

Here's a hellish scenario. You're given the choice to sit through the mercifully fictitious It Ain't Broke: A Musical Tribute to The Fixx, or else rupture your eardrums by jabbing pencils into your head. Tough call? Not really. Consider listening to "Saved by Zero." Now consider Richard Marx and Kenny G, cackling together in their lair, the Bland Cave, and forming an unholy alliance to "reinterpret" the song in their own inimitable way.

Hello, sign language!
Guilty pleasures. That's often the best that can be said about musical tributes, recordings that honor a band or songwriter by having other musicians take a poke at the honoree's work as though it were a pinata filled with cash. Add to this a record company eager to boost back-catalogue sales while introducing its stable of new talent by putting it in the position of a myna bird, and the result is the average tribute: a joyless compilation seeking to rewarm the chilly--or downright bagged-and-tagged--remains of artists as disparate as Iggy Pop and Duran Duran.

There are old mules less sterile than some of these excursions into nostalgia land.

The recent spate of tribute albums began with 1987's The Bridge, which showcased bands like Dinosaur Jr. paying homage to Neil Young. Here, as on other tributes, the groups try to write a sort of linear pop-rock narrative ("Neil Young begat Dino Jr., which begat . . ."), confessing a key source of their style. Subsequent efforts have reproduced the idea with viral swiftness. A scratch-the-surface list of honorees includes the Carpenters, Black Sabbath, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Prince, R.E.M., Sisters of Mercy, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, the Velvet Underground, Charles Mingus, Tom Waits, Big Star, and the Rolling Stones.

In addition to the Iggy and Duran releases, the last year or so has seen tributes to German composer Kurt Weill, Devo, Bruce Springsteen, the Germs, Jimmie Rodgers, and Gary Numan. Among the odder new recordings is a "trance tribute" to New Order called Blue Order, which renders its subject unrecognizable. The hands-down strangest bit of adoration, though, comes from Prosthetic Lips, the "Weird Al" Yankovic tribute actually filled with parodies of a parodist, which proves why it just doesn't pay to trump the class clown. The song titles alone on Lips can raise hives.

There's something intrinsically flawed about the tribute-album project that inevitably damns it before the first lick is copped. Even the best tributes, and there are some good ones, suffer because their agenda involves producing a musical Xerox. That the copy may not always sound much like the original is no guarantee of success; in fact, those results are often worse than reproducing a song faithfully. Efforts like the Duran Duran Tribute Album try an irreverent take by transforming Euro-pop into kitschy ska-punk--the equivalent of sticking your ass on the company copier: It's still a copy, but a supposedly funny one. That the content here is as generic as the album's title is no surprise. If Simon LeBon is dead, then punk (read: not Green Day) is even deader.

Also, where the tribute-album concept was originally meant as a way of bringing arcane music to the public through covers by currently popular artists, that approach has been twisted along the way. When Steel Pole Bath Tub covers R.E.M. on a tribute album, who benefits? Does R.E.M. really need the validation? And what about the meticulously planned surprise party KISS threw for itself when it organized the Kiss My Ass tribute album? Isn't it just a way to make this war-horse seem hip?

When tributes work at all, it's because they serve as a conduit through which an influential artist can reach a new generation of listeners. The most successful tributes seem to approach their subjects with humility and don't usurp the place of the honoree with self-indulgent performances (check out Supersuckers' abuse of Willie Nelson during "Bloody Mary Morning" on Twisted Willie. How's a poor shit-kicker supposed to solo over three electric guitars?).

The Inner Flame, the excellent tribute to recently deceased Tucson steel guitarist Rainer Ptacek, illustrates the right way to sing a peer's praises. The eclectic mix of guests includes Giant Sand, Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris, PJ Harvey, and Jonathan Richman, all of whom approach their tasks with passion but subtlety. What makes this effort stand above others like it is the presence of Ptacek himself on several tracks. Not only does his playing and gifted songwriting elevate the proceedings, but he lends a gravity to the project: The proceeds from the recording served to offset medical costs associated with treating the brain cancer that eventually took Ptacek's life. The project has the spark of discovery about it, as an unknown innovator has his work illuminated by a host of respectful stars.

Successful tributes also match honorees with contemporary musicians capable of approaching the earlier work with inspiration and insight. Nick Cave can sing Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife" on September Songs: the music of Kurt Weill because there's something menacing in the tune that Cave responds to. Cave reimagines the song without dominating it. Plus, the tune has sufficient interpretive room for another singer to step inside it and move the furniture around without completely redecorating. Similarly, Sonic Youth can invert the Carpenters' "Superstar." Even though Thurston Moore's guitar hijacks the original song, the interpretation reinforces the theme of obsession found in the Carpenters' number. In fact, the new version becomes a meditation on obsession in general--including the obsessive-compulsive eating disorder that destroyed Karen Carpenter.

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