[18 October 2011]
There are at least two ways in which fans evaluate the production of Buddy Holly’s records. Some say it was the genius of producer Norman Petty and Holly together that created such clean and sophisticated pop rock. Others claim Holly innovated in the studio, but the best music he recorded can be found in demos and studio recordings of songs before producer Petty prettied them up. Paul Burch takes a somewhat mixed approach. He and his band, the WPA Ballclub, arrange, produce, and perform Holly’s songs in creative, if modest, ways.
For example, Burch and company take a song like “Rave On” and turn it into a Cajun dance number, complete with accordion accompaniment. This keeps the song from sounding like a duplicate of the original and allows it to retain its party flavor. Or on “Not Fade Away,” the band creates a thick wall of sound while Burch drawls the lyrics like syrup on top. While Holly’s original was sparse and dependent on the Bo Diddley beat, this one suggests the thick fog of love.
Burch put out this album in tribute to Holly. He released it during the week of Holly’s 75th birthday, but it’s unclear why Burch selected these 13 cuts. While some of these are among Holly’s best known love songs, others—such as “Midnight Shift”, are not really love songs at all. Burch could have chosen more appropriate material if he was bound to the title’s connotation, but thankfully he took some chances and included a mix of known and unknown tracks. This makes the album that much richer and surprising.
Still, the question when listening to an album of classic covers remains, why bother redoing them if they are so good in the first place? Burch and the band offer tasty versions of the songs, but Holly’s are better. This is no insult to Burch, but the fact is Holly had a much better voice and could use it in more versatile ways. Holly could lilt, roar, hiccup, and sound like a pussycat one minute and a tiger the next. Burch’s vocals are serviceable, but he rarely takes risks. When he hits a high note, he telegraphs the rise in pitch. When he tries to be more provocative, he just sounds a little silly.
Take, “It’s So Easy” with its well-known refrain of “It’s so easy to fall in love”. Holly’s voice is all over the place on that chorus. He goes from deep in the belly to falsetto with growls one second and charming innuendos the next. Burch keeps the vocals on an even keel, and even with the aid of Jen Gunderman on harmony, there’s very little novelty. Holly’s version is ephemeral and makes love seem like magic that just happens. Burch’s suggests that one has to work for it.
Burch‘s baker’s dozen of Holly tracks remind one of just how good the Lubbock native was at writing songs. Unfortunately, it also inadvertently reveals just how good Holly was at singing them. The musical production, arrangements and performances here are all pretty good—but Holly’s were great!