Dream Brother: The Songs of Tim and Jeff Buckley
h, tribute albums, such a tricky artistic business. Sentimental and mercenary justifications aside, songs are either not worth covering or require some pretty good justification for messing with music that was done perfectly the first time around. In the case of Jeff and Tim Buckley (son and father, respectively), the emotional and technical yardsticks are equally daunting: songs both literate and passionate, even histrionic, Brontës with bands, and two voices of sublime clarity and miraculous range. Living up to the trademark Buckley melodrama, both musical and historical, is a Herculean task, a barbed thorn in the side of many of the artists assembled on Dream Brother: The Songs of Tim and Jeff Buckley. To speak plainly: Covering these guys is a bitch.
Some of the new versions simply lack an adequate raison d’être. The original “Morning Theft,” Jeff’s most heartfelt song off the posthumous Sketches for My Sweetheart, The Drunk, traces the minor-key hymnal of “Corpus Christi Carol” to the emotional breakdown of “I miss my beautiful friend.” Stephen Fretwell’s version here simply rehashes the song more slowly, with pedestrian phrasing and a distracting Celtic accent. “You’re a woman, I’m a calf,” Fretwell intones, shearing the mystique from the song and turning it into overwrought, pasty Five for Fighting.
The pointlessness problem persists, particularly through the Jeff covers. Micah P. Hinson’s cover of “Yard of Blonde Girls” takes the song’s references to the sea as license to turn it into a throwaway shanty worthy only of a lager-drenched sing-along after (or during) a Man. U football victory: “Very sexy / Very sexy, OK, OK.” “Everybody Here Wants You” ditches white-boy R-n-B for soulless cut-n-paste, like Moloko without the jokes. Adem’s cover of “Mojo Pin” replicates the regretful, haunted bent of the original with rich acoustic guitar and a weathered falsetto, but it turns out “Black beauty, I love you so” just sounds pretty contrived—even silly—the second time round. Was the great man really in love with a horse?
The Tim covers fare slightly better, possibly thanks to their being a bit more obscure. The Engineers, auditioning to be the Le Corbusiers of pop, approach “Song to the Siren” with their trademark architectural shoegazing, like a skyscraper with the windows mirrored on the inside. They build the song with the structural integrity and persistent presence of reinforced concrete, perhaps a fitting fate for the operatic original which reaches into thin air on ethereal wails and levitating skeins of reverb guitar.
Sufjan Stevens, perhaps the biggest name contributor, is also the closest in spirit to Buckley Senior’s art-folk ambitions. His cover of “She Is” finesses the busyness of the original for the crisp chamber music showcased on Illinois. Dippy English folkster Kathryn Williams’ reedy, fragile voice gives “Buzzin’ Flies” a homely lilt less striking, but more in keeping with the wistful mood than Buckley’s imperious tenor.
A tribute album is predicated on a win-win hypothesis: It is a prism, refracting great artists in the voices of their successors and allowing successors to showcase their chops inventiveness via great and perhaps over-looked music. The premise holds for Tim’s songs, rummaging through the great man’s catalogue to polish up tracks for the indie generation. Jeff’s legacy requires no such restoration, though the dramatic, wildly emotive falsetto that paved the way for Thom Yorke and a slew of pretenders could use some rehabilitation from the depredations of Coldplay and their cohorts. Dream Brother’s contributors wisely shy away from the challenge of Jeff’s voice however, relying instead on reinterpretation. But the epic, grandiloquent songs selected consistently fall short without the exhilaration of Buckley’s quicksilver pipes, leaving only bathetic pretension. Plain speaking again: No one can do Jeff like Jeff.