Copy Cats

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.

While it might seem there's plenty of interpretive space inside a Tom Waits song, the same extreme idiosyncrasies of style that make Waits a poet prevent another artist from stepping into his shoes. The only thing more depressing than enduring Magnapop's unlistenable version of Waits' "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis" on Step Right Up: the songs of Tom Waits is talking to the people involved in putting out the frightful recording.

Step Right Up's executive producer at Manifesto Records, Evan Cohen, sounds like a guy stuck milking a cash goat. Tributes sell poorly, he claims, and cost a lot to promote. Selling 50,000 copies is typical (rare exceptions exist: Common Thread, the 1993 tribute to the Eagles, moved three million units). "We sold about 20,000 copies of Step Right Up," says Cohen, "which I feel is disappointing, although good for an indie label like us. I doubt there was any increase in anyone's catalogue sales because of a tribute, and that goes for Waits, the Carpenters, or Iggy Pop."

In addition, Cohen says the Waits tribute was a logistical nightmare to record. "It was extremely difficult," he admits, "dealing with many layers of management, lawyers, producers, etc. I would not do it again."

If it's true that tributes don't earn much money and produce music that makes you wish electricity hadn't been discovered, why is the market flooded with these releases? The answer has something to do with physics and nostalgia. Because Einstein's relativity theory extends from the scientific realm into the moral and psychological ones, the Western world's no longer guided by the absolutes that seemed to direct earlier generations.

In an attempt to regain these absolutes in the imagined innocence of youth, people turn to nostalgia to "replay" the past. This explains the popularity of art deco, retro fashions, "classic rock" and films rehashing The Brady Bunch and Leave It to Beaver. It explains the perceived need to drag Flubber back into our lives. It explains the proliferation of musical tributes, too. People want a foundation; if Jesus no longer cuts it, maybe Stone Temple Pilots covering Led Zeppelin can.

Postmodern theory claims society has lost touch with reality, that the "reality" we think we occupy is fraudulent, simply a grab bag of older styles and images we consume in an inauthentic effort to reinvent ourselves from past fragments. While this predicament offers unusual juxtapositions, like Garth Brooks singing "Hard Luck Woman" on the KISS tribute, the illusory strangeness evaporates before the gimmickry of the made-for-Leno spectacle. Brooks crosses genres only to produce a sanitized copy that's self-conscious, a novelty sold under the coded label "cowboy does old rock ballad C&W style."

According to renegade sociologist Jean Baudrillard, copies like this, copies of the un-ironic real--real art, music, architecture--are all that's left to recycle today in a culture steeped in repetition and consumerism. Most alarming in this commodified society is the inability of mass-produced art to challenge corporate power any longer. The obscene or dangerous is now absorbed into mainstream culture, whose consumer logic can turn a profit on everything from Malibu Barbie to Marilyn Manson.

If tribute albums represent just another form of this fetishistic repetition, they become less homages and more like prayers to regain a sense of meaning in a rootless world. Saints preserve us from the day things get so bad we're nostalgic enough to create the Dexy's Midnight Runners tribute album.

Pencils won't be enough to stop the pain then.

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