Thursday, March 24, 2016

Rave On Buddy Holly


Listen to Florence + The Machine's Not Fade Away, the fourth track on Rave On Buddy Holly. It's the most compelling track on this not-uniformly good but overall very good tribute record. 

Thinking about the record forces thinking about Buddy Holly himself, the nature of his genius, especially considering his death at 22. Isn't the essence of him the consummate marriage between romantic teenage innocence and the driving beat of rock and roll inflected by fast Texas country picking. The descriptor that comes through most about him given that marriage is "purity." He's a poet of young love, Romeo and Juliet, not Antony and Cleopatra, and decidedly not, heaven help us, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf love. So not for nothing his songs work off teenage idioms of his time and place: "Rave On," "Maybe Baby," "Oh Boy," "That'll Be The Day," "Everyday," "Well All Right," "It's So Easy" and maybe, just maybe, the more challenging "Not Fade Away." The themes of these songs are love wanted, love granted, love exisiting, love hurting and, generally, love that knows what it is, and, so, love simple.

If this is a fair assessment of the heart of Holly's art, surely an art bathed in romantic, uncomplicated teenage innocence, then it's a good standard by which to judge the tribute tracks for their fidelity to his art, for good variations on it, failure on either score, or, finally, as tunes in themselves.

So, Not Fade Away is an amazing track. The mainly unvarying backbeat drumming forming the spine of the tune suggests the enduring steadiness, the confident presence and the urgency of what won't fade away. Florence, who has a great voice, uses dynamics from quietly intoning the lyrics to a gospel like, loud, ecstatic insistence to give voice to this love's ebbs and flows within what won't fade away. In this she + the Machine depart from Buddy Holly's more plaintive:

....I'm a-gonna tell you how it's gonna be
You're gonna give your love to me...

to dramatic vocal enactment of love's ups and downs even as it's so real and so enduring. Simply a fantastic track. 

On the other hand, the worst track is Paul McCartney's "It's So Easy," an unaccountably ghoulish, lecherous, growling-sounding assurance of a sure thing. So, by my criteria, McCartney foolishly distorts and muddies Buddy Holly's purity and innocence for no artful gain; it sounds awful, a lot of meaningless growling and some raspy black-wanna- be speaking that give no reason for themselves; and, kind of saying the same thing twice, McCartney's cover itself is ugly and purposeless.

Fiona Apple and Jon Brion, duetting, do a nice version of "Everyday" in trying to remain pretty faithful to the original. The only thing is, by my last criterion, in the duetting Apple has a strong, supple, musical voice and Brion not evidently so much, at least going by this track. So while the singing is pleasant and infused with Holly's spirit, Brion brings her singing down some, providing a constant check against it being what it could be. Better it would've been to let Apple have some time to herself. 

Justin Townes Earle has a beautifully musical voice that lends itself well to his glorious version of Maybe Baby, giving it a lyricism, the poignancy of teenage hope, that does Holly one better. This is a variation on the original to great effect. Same comment more or less for True Love Ways by My Morning Jacket. 

Similarly, Kid Rock in his raspy essence-of-rock and roll way rocks on in Well All Right and gives it a driving exuberance not there in Buddy Holly's version. Here Kid Rock is doing perfectly what McCartney may have shot for but missed by a wide mile. (I'd argue that syrupy McCartney doesn't have it in him to sing the way Kid Rock does as his, Kid Rock's, second nature. But that's for another day.) 

Another failed track is Lou Reed's cover of Peggy Sue. In Holly's singing, that song is pure teenage wanting, teenage romantic obsession that crowds in on itself and crowds all else out--"Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty Peggy Sue"--to the point of hiccuping excitement. Reed loses all that in his flattened out, too cool for school, hip version. By my criteria, he's lost the spirit of Holly's art, has varied it downwards and that variation is in its own right a pretty draggy monotone tune.

The maker of this tribute record has done something smart. He ends it with John Doe singing Peggy Sue Got Married and finally with a great version of Raining In My Heart by Graham Nash. Bob Dylan said that when he was a kid he saw Buddy Holly perform in Hibbing Minnesota. Dylan says he watched him perform and, mesmerized, just went "Wow!" So it's a nice symmetry that Peggy Sue Got Married has something of the "Dylanesque" in its more wistful, complex lyrics, and even in, forgive me, its bit of intertextuality as the song refers to previous songs mostly about a girl named Peggy Sue. And then the capper, the last track on the record, Graham Nash's Raining In My Heart, with more mature sadness by way of more complex lyrics than in any other song on the record, and sung with the most accomplished channeling of Buddy Holly. Graham Nash loved him. 

All to my ears anyway.


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