Jeff Buckley is a rock 'n' roll Tupac Shakur. Like the slain gangsta rapper, Buckley's posthumous pipeline outstrips his living efforts. Buckley, who drowned in May 1997 at age 30 while swimming in the Mississippi River, lives up to his image as a fragile man-angel on Songs to No One, 1991-1992, the third Buckley release since the tragedy. The release is another attempt to slake the thirst of a small but fervid cult audience that hangs on for every note from its tragic hero, no matter how lo-fi.
After moving to New York from Los Angeles in 1991, the unsigned Buckley recorded these demos, live tracks and at-home creations with guitarist and onetime Captain Beefheart member Gary Lucas, some as a reincarnation of Lucas' band Gods & Monsters. The 11-song set foreshadows Buckley's ghostly legacy, cemented by 1994's Grace, his gorgeous (and only) studio album. Buckley's father was 1960s folk-jazz singer Tim Buckley, who also died young after a wildly experimental but short-lived career. Though the younger Buckley was not as prolific as his father, he comes across as equally adventurous.
With only Buckley's operatic voice and Lucas' spidery electric guitar, songs such as "Hymne a' l'Amour," the 11-and-a-half-minute opener, leak like hot gas, crawling toward bridges and choruses, luxuriating in trance-inducing possibilities. Despite their minimalism, Buckley and Lucas wear a variety of styles, from the doo-wop of Pat Kelly's 1969 reggae hit "How Long Will It Take" to the sprightly jazz pop of the title track. The real finds are the watery Delta blues of "Harem Man" and the slow-burning soul of "She Is Free," a rehearsal tape featuring newly overdubbed backing vocals from New York's Sex Mob.
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Yet even the sainted Buckley occasionally made missteps. The amateurish punk of "Malign Fiesta (No Soul)," featuring Golden Palominos drummer Anton Fier, is sloppy and uninspired, with Buckley's sweet voice sounding shrill as it struggles to keep up with the pace and intensity of the double-time beat. Cultists, however, will appreciate the inclusion of demos of two songs that became the linchpins of Buckley's debut, the cathartic dirge "Mojo Pin" and two versions of "Grace," one with a band, the other as a duet with Lucas.
Unlike the often flat Shakur recordings cobbled together since the rapper's death -- to the benefit of his estate and not much else -- these embryonic sketches, while not exactly revelatory, add to the Buckley biography, crafting a picture of a budding artist whose best work lay ahead.