Friday, August 19, 2011

Rave On!

Rave On Buddy Holly
Various Artists

It is a rare thing that an album of covers can come near the original. The covers are so often left in the dust that it's mind-boggling anyone bothers making them anymore. Still, here to mark Buddy Holly's seventy-fifth anniversary, we have Rave On Buddy Holly, a compilation of nineteen songs covered by nineteen different artists. It is, ultimately, wondrous.

There are things here that were completely expected: She & Him's cover of "Oh Boy!" sounds adorable. Nick Lowe does a magnificent cover of "Changing All Those Changes." Fiona Apple & Jon Brion's twinkling, true rendition of "Everyday" is one of those sparkling moments where you know what the song will sound like before you've heard a note. The Detroit Cobras, a professional cover band, do a charging take on "Heartbeat."

There were surprising disappointments: Lou Reed and Paul McCartney, two of the most ardent Holly disciples, deliver terrible takes on "Peggy Sue" and "It's So Easy." Reed's sounds like a shitty garage band (To be fair, I've never liked him), and McCartney's is plodding. Modest Mouse flatten the melody of "That'll Be the Day," killing the hooks.

There were pleasant surprises: Kid Rock's "Well All Right" is an inspired, soul-tinged take. My Morning Jacket walk away from "True Love Ways" sounding like a less harmony-drenched Fleet Foxes, a direction Fleet Foxes might want to take into consideration. Patti Smith takes "Words of Love," one of Holly's breeziest recordings, and gives it weight, which should be impossible. I don't like Florence + The Machine; she's got lungs, but I find her exhausting to listen to after a few minutes. As it turns out, that's been entirely a matter of the songs. Attached to "Not Fade Away," her powerhouse voice is put to phenomenal use, and her backing track resembles a cheery Swordfishtrombones outtake.

Great covers take a familiar song and make it say something new. None of the covers here do that, except one: John Doe's astonishing cover of "Peggy Sue Got Married." He slows down the tempo, giving the music room to breathe, adds in undulating waves of gentle background dissonance, and sings with an undertone of melancholy Holly never quite produced himself. It reveals the power and intelligence in Holly's simple lyrics. It transforms "Peggy Sue Got Married" into something intensely personal. And it is the greatest testament here to Holly's remarkable gifts.

Buddy Holly may have continued to be great, he may have become a has-been constantly retreading the same ground, or he may have abandoned music altogether. We'll never know who Holly could have been and what he could have done if he hadn't died, but Rave On Buddy Holly serves well the argument that we'll continue to know who he was and what he did for a very long time yet.

No comments: