From the moment the waters surrendered Jeff Buckley’s body, the mythology practically scripted itself. Buckley and his father, Tim Buckley, were both known for soaring multi-octave voices, restless creative spirits, and young deaths (the father by heroin overdose at 28, the son by drowning at 30), but that’s about as clear as the story gets. The younger Buckley spent much of his career working to distance himself from his father’s legacy—and even then, Jeff’s attempts at artistic autonomy were complicated by the crosscurrents of rebellion, admiration, and even tribute that weave through even the smoothest father/son relationships. It’s a story too intricate to get into here, but David Browne’s Dream Brother: The Lives & Music of Jeff & Tim Buckley is a highly recommended look at the lives of both men and the ways their lives and art did or didn’t cross.
In his lifetime, Tim released nine studio albums that chronicled his growth from a talented but conventional folkie into an artist fascinated with jazz and challenging forms; Jeff, for his part, released only Grace before his death, flashing incredible potential with a raw blend of Zeppelin bombast and soaring vocals that left self-consciousness on the curb and never looked back. Both men harnessed what critic Ann Powers once called the “inner songbirds” afforded by their beautiful voices, following their muses with what sounds like unquestioning devotion.
For all the good intentions radiating from Dream Brother: The Songs of Tim & Jeff Buckley, that story and its complexity get a bit muddled. It’s not for lack of song selection; each phase of Tim Buckley’s career is represented and the songs pulled from Jeff Buckley’s catalog make sense (except for maybe “Yard of Blonde Girls”, which always seemed like a bit of lightweight fluff). The problem’s due to the fact that most of the new-folk and indie singer/songwriter acts here strip away the rough edges. Little of Jeff Buckley’s epic sense of dynamics survives (a perfect example being Adem’s “Mojo Pin”, which attempts to replace cathartic blasts of guitar with accelerated fingerpicking), and the selections from Tim Buckley’s output lean towards his more conventional, accessible work.
But this tribute does hold distinct pleasures. Whereas Tim’s original version of “Sing a Song for You” conveyed a sense of melancholy (and maybe even subtle shades of menace), the Magic Numbers’ male/female duo treatment adds layers of lilting sweetness. Sufjan Stevens takes “She Is”, which presented Tim Buckley as the epitome of the spry, trilling folk singer, and makes it sound like it should accompany the opening credits of a Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, etc.) film. My personal favorite is the accordion-laced version of Jeff’s “Grace”; in King Creosote’s hands, the song becomes something of a sea chanty. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does. Bitmap’s “Dream Brother” gains distance, as if the singer’s truly calling across a clouded landscape of sleep, his voice working to navigate the path offered by Buckley’s serpentine melody.
Past that, the differences between the originals and these remakes are pretty subtle. “Song to the Siren” mainly gains a more pronounced, shimmery sense of its watery setting. “Buzzin’ Fly” benefits from a little bit more acoustic bounce, while “I Must Have Been Blind” features a few electronic beeps and a spacier feel. You could argue that the artists here, in their efforts to build fragile frameworks from the originals’ slightest qualities, lose some of the power that was within their reach, that they rein in the very restlessness that defined both Buckleys. True missteps are few, though, and those generally stem from singers unable to resist the lure of either Buckley’s vocal acrobatics. To a singer with considerable range, those Buckley vocals must be the equivalent of lightbulbs to a moth. No, the main problem with Dream Brother is that some fairly decent versions of Buckley songs wind up blending together in a lush, dreamy haze. Taken separately, many of these renditions are quite pleasant; taken together, though, their obvious craft and reverence don’t pack much punch.