Various Artists: A Gift From a Garden to a Flower: A Tribute to Donovan
When John Lennon sang in 1970 that the dream was over, he may not have single-handedly brought the '60s to a halt, but he did manage to articulate the general feeling of the time with his typical acuity and concision. The ideals of the preceding decade had promised to lead to something better, but when they left little in their wake but acid casualties, venereal disease, and failed hippie adventures in agriculture, their followers were quick to abandon the god that had failed them. When the apostasy came, a great many of the performers formerly perched on the top of the world were forced to either adjust their ways to the tenor of the new decade or go down with the psychedelic ship. Some made the transition, but some, like the holy trinity of Jim, Jimi, and Janis, simply died, and still others watched their careers go down the drain right along with their milieu. Few fit so well into the last category as Donovan, a creature as inextricably tied to his time as Cyndi Lauper or the Bee Gees.
It's surprising to see any kind of resurgence for such a figure, even one as modest as a tribute album. Such is now the case with Donovan. Sunny indie label Darla has cobbled together an impressive 18 bands bold enough to proclaim their love for the much-maligned flower child and released the results as A Gift From a Garden to a Flower, a neat inversion of the title of Donovan's somewhat famed double-LP. The tribute album genre deserves much of the skepticism that it gets; most are just cheap cash-ins populated by no-name bands that play straightforward and inevitably inferior versions of the originals, hardly a way to pay fitting homage. Yet buried among these irritating specimens is the occasional album that takes advantage of the possibilities of the form, foremost among them the chance to illuminate the full range of an artist's influence. For whatever else can be said about it, Gift does just that. If it's jarring to listen to -- and it is -- it's nonetheless impressive to hear the different directions in which Donovan can be dragged.
To be sure, those directions are not all commendable. Donovan is seen in most people's eyes the same way Bob Dylan viewed him in Don't Look Back: as a punch line. That's extremely unfair, of course, but even the most ardent admirer should admit to himself that their hero could be downright ridiculous. Unfortunately, some performers on Gift carry on the worst parts of Donovan's legacy, namely his folk-based tendency to take himself too seriously and his drug-based tendency towards self-indulgence.
The former is borne out by Pale Horse and Rider, who turn "There is an Ocean" into a truly dreadful experience. The latter fault, while not always striking as discordantly, does ruin its share of tracks, specifically Sweet Trip's run through "Sunny Goodge Street" and Lenola's inflation of "Atlantis". Worst of all is Ciao Bella who surpasses these crimes by lacing "Mellow Yellow" with snarky irony, something simply incompatible with someone like Donovan.
In other places, the performers realize that Donovan was at his best when he was being sly and joyous. This approach reached its apex with "Sunshine Superman", and while that isn't covered on Gift, its spirit lives on in the best entries therein. My Morning Jacket's version of "Wear Your Love Like Heaven", Greater California's "Jersey Thursday", and Screen Prints' "Celeste" all impress in the same way as the originals with their simple, unpretentious fun. Best of all is Watoo Watoo's "Jennifer Juniper", a superb transformation of Baroque pop into electronica that greatly diverges in form without sacrificing the spirit of the song. This alone is enough of a reminder that the tribute album still contains worthy possibilities, and it serves notice along with the rest of the best here that Donovan's continuing influence is certainly nothing to lament, at least not entirely.