We Will Follow: A Tribute to U2
The Friar's Club couldn't have concocted a better roasting for U2 than this tough-love fest. Don Rickles calling Bono a hockey puck somehow doesn't even come close to demeaning the group's early catalogue like having The Electric Hellfire Club's singer chew through "Sunday Bloody Sunday" like he was Mr. Tooth Decay. Or nabbing groups like Heaven 17 and Dead or Alive -- bands whose synth pop The Edge's energetic chimy guitars proved a welcome respite from -- to pummel U2's rocking old repertoire into guitarless dance sludge. Or exhuming fallen mall incubus Tiffany to sing "New Year's Day" with techno ravers Front Assembly Line. Anyone hoping that the queen of the baby-sitting set's voice has plummeted to Marianne Faithfull levels of depravity will have to get their kicks some other way. Old Tiff sounds as anonymous as any other mixmaster's chanteuse.
Anonymity is a problem many old U2 fans have had to grapple with. Here was a band that started out with a very identifiable sound that they stuck with for about five albums, one too many if you ask some people. Commendably, once that sound became Grammy worthy (i.e., rammed into the ground), they fought to change it, much the same way a heroin addict starts scratching at his own face to feel clean. U2's eventual de-evolution into a dance band meant they began to sound just like everyone else, a point driven home when they let The Edge sing "Numb" as if he were comedian Steven Wright.
Like most Irishmen, there's a good deal of self-loathing behind their every move, so it wouldn't even be hard to imagine Bono singing on this album, disguising himself as industrial band Razed in Black and chewing up "Pride (In the Name of Love)" like a rabid pit bull. In a tribute album first, both Bang Tango and Dead or Alive catfight over doing "Even Better Than the Real Thing" (never one of U2's standouts) and call it a draw. But when you have The Polecats, a third-generation rockabilly band, cover "Desire" -- essentially a fourth-generation Bo Diddley cop -- you feel like tossing this thing into a fifth-generation waste-paper basket. Pointless, bloody pointless. -- Serene Dominic
More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album
There's something rather romantic about the tale of the small, vanished musician who leaves behind a hint of genius buried beneath the debris of madness. All hail Roky Erickson and Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson, the holy trinity of pop's martyred madmen. Even better if you're crazy and dead; it's far easier to fabricate and exaggerate that way. Hence the tales about Alexander "Skip" Spence, the former Jefferson Airplane drummer and Moby Grape guitarist-songwriter who died in April, three days before he was to turn 53. Myriad stories abound about Spence, many involving axes swung at bandmates and men possessed by demons and long stays in mental institutions and, eventually, a painful death brought on by cancer. One tale has it that his son Omar was playing Skip More Oar during the final hour of his tortured life. No publicist could come up with a better advertisement tag line: "Skip Spence died for this record."
One can only imagine what Spence thought of this ragtag assemblage of all-stars (Robert Plant, Beck, Afghan Whig Greg Dulli, Tom Waits, R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Son Volt's Jay Farrar), small-stars (Alistair Galbraith, Mudhoney, Robyn Hitchcock, Alejandro Escovedo), and other unknowns reproducing, in sequence, Spence's one and only solo record, 1969's Oar. Maybe, when listening to Plant's elegiac rendition of "Little Hands," Spence thought he was walking into the warm, beckoning arms of tiny angels; not in years has Plant's voice sounded so tender, so fragile, so genuine. Or maybe Spence heard himself in Mark Lanegan's "Cripple Creek," the voice shot through with shards of broken glass and broken heart. Or perhaps the man listened to Beck's playful, pealing "Halo of Gold" and only wondered what could have been. After all, deep down Spence and Beck were not so different: pop freaks with ears too big to keep a good sound down. Beck's mutated rendering of Spence's gem is, so far, 1999's pop highlight, Odelay's shimmering moments filtered through freak-out fuzz.
More Oar shows only a vague resemblance to its forebear; it's the scrawny child all grown up and filled out. Rich where Oar was often barren, fun where Oar was brooding, alluring where Oar was unbeautiful, this is the rare homage worth such an appellation. From The Durocs' pet-sounds rave-up of "Margaret Tiger-Rug" to Waits' front-porch ground-gravel rendition of "Books of Moses" to the Minus 5's hypnotic, 17-minute "Doodle" finale, there's not a dishonest note played or a moment wasted. That it only makes you want to hear the original is the most meaningful tribute of all. -- Robert Wilonsky