[17 May 2007]
Few ideas trouble record companies or pique the curiosity of fans more than the buzz that a commercially successful artist is in the process of recording or is even toying with the concept of releasing a multi-LP project. A double album (or one of even greater duration) is thought to be among the most ambitious and/or risky moves an artist can make, gambling that the artistic freedom they so proudly invoke will produce results appealing enough to overcome the short attention span of record buyers and the possible alienation of their label (usually worried about the attention span of record buyers). The commercial and critical reactions historically received by such endeavors prove the unpredictability of their success.
In 1980, UK punk pioneers The Clash followed the smashing triumph of double LP London Calling with the even more intrepid Sandinista!. Proof the band was ratcheting up their patented level of daring came in two key factors: the album’s length and the makeup of its sound. Sandinista! was issued as a triple album containing 36 tracks, six on each side of its original vinyl format. Not only was Sandinista! longer than anything they’d done previously, but it was more experimental and exploratory. The songs were heavily reggae-influenced and were also often marked by eccentric passages consisting of wandering, almost atmospheric instrumentals and strange vocal recordings. While there was much about Sandinista! to surprise listeners, the band’s inimitable spirit tied even the loosest ends on the project together, making it an important part of their recorded history.
The bold nature of Sandinista! was not lost on Jimmy Guterman. The writer (whose 2005 book, Runaway American Dream: Listening to Bruce Springsteen is a magnificent read) was so intrigued by the album that he compiled a tribute, The Sandinista! Project, in which a varied slate of artists have re-recorded The Clash’s 1980 work in its entirety. In a press release promoting the album, Guterman details his fascination with the original: “It wasn’t necessarily their best record, their best-selling record, or even their most enjoyable record, but it’s an exciting, sprawling mess that I return to constantly.”
Guterman and those promoting the album seem to revel in the feat of assembling a double disc tribute to a triple LP. The album is labelled as “a tribute as ambitious as the album itself” and describes Guterman’s role as “the Herculean task of commissioning 36 songs to correlate with Sandinista!‘s own 36…” The connection Guterman and company feel to the boldness of The Clash’s work and their admission of the degree of difficulty inherently associated with their charge begs a few questions. If double or triple albums are such risky artistic maneuvers, what then should be made of projects seeking to replicate or revere the glory of the original? Though in a different way, tribute albums can be just as chancy, so what results at the intersection of two very treacherous musical mediums? If a lengthy, “sprawling mess” of an album is made digestible by the vision and spirit of the original artist, how then will the material fare in the hands of those who have less equity built up with the audience?
The musicians assembled by Guterman tackle these questions with a great deal of verve, though their answers prove a mixed bag of successes and disappointments. This lineup of artists proves as eclectic as the sounds of Sandinista! itself. Worth noting is that several artists involved have either direct or indirect ties to The Clash, the most obvious being Mikey Dread and Mick Gallagher who contributed to the original Sandinista! recording. The group does their best with the mission they receive; some sticking as closely as possible to the loosely constructed script handed down by The Clash, others twisting and shaping the material to match their own styles and strengths.
Each disc begins with relatively faithful renderings; Disc 1 sees Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers give a kindred spirit and sense of forward motion to “The Magnificent Seven”. Katrina Leskanich (of Katrina & the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine” fame) follows with “Hitsville U.K.”, fitting as her greatest hit owes some of its groove to The Clash track. Other Disc 1 highlights include Matthew Ryan’s alt.-country take on “Somebody Got Murdered”, Jim Duffy’s jazz instrumental “Look Here” and The Smithereens’ “Up in Heaven (Not Only Here)”. As with its successor, the initial disc has some uneven moments, examples include Amy Rigby’s struggles through a challenging assignment on “The Leader” and Jason Ringenberg/Kristi Rose’s laudable attempt to move “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe” intro country territory slows the track’s energy.
Disc 2 opens with the excellent version of “Police on My Back” Willie Nile recorded for his 2006 album The Streets of New York. Despite having some of the records’ best contributions (The Crunchies’ “Charlie Don’t Surf”, Sex Clark Five’s “Career Opportunities” and “The Equaliser” by Sunset Heroes), the second disc also contains many of its most inferior moments. The Lothars and The Hyphens struggle through “The Call Up” and “Shepherds Delight”, respectively, proving that the soul of a stellar band is often what sells the most difficult of its tracks. Without actually being The Clash, it’s almost unfair to judge anyone for not delivering on these particular songs, but such is the nature of the beast when it comes to tribute records. Mediocre tracks by Camper Van Beethoven, Phil Rockrohr and the Lifters and The Blizzard of 78 (featuring Mikey Dread) take momentum from an album that simply because of its length needs as much momentum as it can get.
While there are certainly some wonderful moments on The Sandinista! Project, unfortunately for those involved, the very nature of this venture works directly against the sum ever being greater than its parts. At over two hours and 20 minutes in length, the album discourages a casual listen. Fans who found as much inspiration in The Clash’s original work as Guterman or those willing to enjoy the album in small doses will find plenty to be satisfied with.