[3 April 2014]
Let’s be frank. Tribute albums are almost always a bad idea. If the original artist does a good job with the material, the cover versions will almost always be inferior. The most one can hope for is that the new renditions will have something different to offer, not necessarily something better. That’s largely the case here.
Jackson Browne is well known for his live performances and the quality of his recordings. That’s why he was inducted in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. The musicians who take on his catalogue have quite the challenge. The good news is that the roster includes some big names, such as Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa taking on the Mexican-tinged “Linda Paloma”, Don Henley with the indie folk band Blind Pilot gently adapting the introspective classic “These Days”, and Bonnie Raitt and David Lindley offering a reggae reinterpretation of “Everywhere I Go”. These musicians competently deliver the goods, which is only to be expected. While the fresh renderings are fine, nothing really exciting or unexpected happens. Springsteen, Henley, and Raitt are experienced and knowledgeable performers who could probably make the oeuvre of Justin Bieber sound righteous.
The involvement of these renowned rockers will bring attention to the release. But Music Road Records, who issued this double disc homage to Clyde (Jackson Brown’s real first name) is rooted in Texas, and this is responsible for what makes the collection so unusual and good. A significant number of the 23 tracks were recorded by Lone Star artists. That may seem odd as Browne is one of the quintessential southern California artists and is closely associated with the region. But the Texans understand the mirage of sunny skies and good times. Living in paradise is just as difficult as being anywhere else. No one is ever satisfied because existence is inherently fragile whether it’s the ecosystem where one dwells, one’s faith in god or each other, or the human heart that can never understand itself.
Austin musician Jimmy LaFave, who co-produced the album, turns “For Everyman” into a seven-minute monument to our shared dreams that turn to sand. Lyle Lovett covers two songs. He offers an earnest “Our Lady of the Well” and then celebrates the star-struck girl loved by a roadie, “Rosie”. The contrast between the cuts reveals both Browne’s diversity as a songwriter and Lovett’s ability to perform in different styles. Bob Schneider turns “Running on Empty” into a hymn to the steady rolling of the tires more than the howling of the wind and the false freedom the road suggests. Kevin Welch coaxes out the gospel roots of the title track and suggests the spirituality beneath Browne’s hard look at life. And Eliza Gilkyson brings out the dreamer in Browne with her paean to the future one must look to when the shit hits the fan on “Before the Deluge”.
There are several other noteworthy performances on the two-disc set, including Lucinda Williams’ bluesy offering of “The Pretender”, Karla Bonoff’s quietly romantic “Something Fine”, Paul Thorn’s heartfelt but controlled take on “Doctor My Eyes”, and the oddly successful collaboration between Marc Cohn and Joan as Police Woman on the noirish “Too Many Angels”. No bad cuts stand out, although one might question whether every song is really necessary. A tighter presentation on a single disc might have been better.
However, my biggest quibble is the fact that the compilation lacks something: my favorite Browne song, the rollicking “Redneck Friend” (check out Dave Alvin’s hard rocking version sometime). Sure, one cannot capture every wonderful Browne composition created over the past 30-plus years. There’s no “Take It Easy”, “Boulevard”, “Somebody’s Baby”, “Lawyers in Love” and other important Browne tunes as well. One might argue with the programming and selection in a “should have” sort of way, but it is more beneficial to just appreciate the good stuff that’s here and give thanks to Texas as well as Jackson Browne for their respective contributions to music.