Tribute albums are a mixed bag, to put it mildly. For every tribute album that gets it right (If I Were a Carpenter, for example), there are a dozen crass compilations assembled by Phil from Marketing, with more regard for the moolah than for the artist whose work is supposedly being honored. Take the tribute to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Please.
Signs of change are on the horizon, however. Tribute LLC released two excellent tribute albums to Paul McCartney, opting for the right artists over the popular artists. The good people at Rykodisc, however, just went one better with This Is Where I Belong: The Songs of Ray Davies and The Kinks. Chronicling the sprawling career of the grouchy Kinks frontman is no mean feat, and to be fair no single CD compilation would ever truly do Davies justice. But give Rykodisc bonus points for selecting artists in seemingly mismatched genres and turning what could have been a truly Anglophiles-only affair into an exciting, diverse tribute to one of the greats. Besides, Ray Davies’ liner notes alone are nearly worth the price of the album.
The first sign that this compilation is made by Kinks fans for Kinks fans is the song selection. The big hits — “You Really Got Me”, “Lola”, “Come Dancing” — are nowhere to be found, perhaps left for Destiny’s Child to cover on Phil from Marketing’s album. Instead we get two songs from Give the People What They Want (but not rock radio staple “Destroyer”) and three songs from Village Green Preservation Society among other things. The biggest shocker is the near complete absence of Britpop bands. No Blur (though Damon Albarn’s duet with Davies on “Waterloo Sunset” from 1996 closes the album), no Supergrass, no Paul Weller. It is unknown whether these omissions were intentional, but ironically the album is better off for it.
Fountains of Wayne start off with “Better Things”, and their handling of it makes the song sound more like one of their own songs than a Kinks song, with the ramped up chorus and honeycoated harmonies. Josh Rouse turns “Well Respected Man” into a Coldplay-ish slice of acoustic bliss, thanks to a nifty arrangement and a marvelously downplayed falsetto vocal. Jonathan Richman, God love him, works his voodoo on “Stop Your Sobbing” and easily steals the song back from The Pretenders. Hard rockers Queens of the Stone Age might seem an odd match for “Who’ll Be the Next in Line”, but keep in mind Ozzy Osbourne has long cited “You Really Got Me” as the song that made him want to start a hard rock band. The Queens handle the material with a reverence that’s downright touching, staying very faithful to the original.
Queens of the Stone Age, Josh Rouse, Jonathan Richman, Fountains of Wayne. That’s quite the eclectic list to begin with. Now throw in Bebel Gilberto, daughter of Bossa Nova god Joao Gilberto, and Tim O’Brien’s dead serious bluegrass version of “Muswell Hillbilly” and things suddenly get very interesting. O’Brien’s drawling delivery of the line “They never gonna kill my Cockney pride”, backed by steel guitars and fiddles, is sheer genius. The irony of Gilberto covering “No Return” was not lost on Davies either, who said in the liner notes that he wrote the song with her mother Miucha in mind in the first place. Rounding out the left field triple bill is Lambchop, who run “Art Lover” through the Nick Cave blander. Davies, upon seeing their name in the track listing, confesses, “I haven’t eaten a lambchop since 1975, but I really miss the mint sauce.”
It’s fitting that the most commercial band here, Fastball, covers the most commercial song of the bunch in “‘Til the End of the Day” and changes virtually nothing. Matthew Sweet is a natural for the dreamy “Big Sky”, and Cracker rocks out “Victoria” but adds a horn fill in the bridge that’s rather, er, Victorian. Closing the album with Albarn and Davies’ take on “Waterloo Sunset” may be a boon to Blur fans who had been scrambling to find a good version of the BBC duet, but its inclusion also feels oddly lazy. Would it have been too difficult to record something new for the album?
This, however, is splitting hairs. This Is Where I Belong is one of those rare tribute albums that would make both artist and fan base happy, but is not so obscure that a casual fan would feel left out on the joke. The variety of the artists assembled for this project speaks volumes about Davies’ influence. It’s also promising that, in an age of record labels declaring war on their customers, some labels are actually giving the people what they want.