Tribute albums: the sincerest form of flattery

October 09, 1994|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Just as imitation is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery, cover versions are today's favorite way to pay tribute. And paying tribute is all the rage these days.

Flip through the bins at your local music store, and you'll find literally dozens of tribute albums, offering homage to everyone from the Carpenters to Kraftwerk to Kiss. A few have even been best sellers, like the country-oriented "Common Thread: Songs of the Eagles," which was a fixture in the Top-20 earlier this year. And more are on the way, including albums devoted to the music of Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

As if that weren't enough, we've also seen a surge in cover versions -- that is, artists "covering" material originally recorded by someone else. Luther Vandross' new "Songs" is a perfect example, consisting entirely of his reinterpretations of classic R&B and pop hits. But it's hardly the only one. From Eric Clapton ("From the Cradle") to Guns N' Roses ("The Spaghetti Incident?") to Gloria Estefan (the forthcoming "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me"), an increasing number of singer-songwriters are deciding to leave the writing to others.

Is all this simply a case of everything old being new again? Or could this ongoing attempt to recapture the past reflect a deeper dissatisfaction with the sound of contemporary music?

Whatever the case, there's no doubt that these projects have taken on a certain faddish allure. Ten years ago, tribute albums were almost entirely the domain of little-known alternative labels, which delighted in issuing oddball collections like "Heaven and Hell, Vol. 1" (devoted to the music of the Velvet Underground) and "Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them" (featuring the music of the Japanese punk trio Shonen Knife).

Now, everybody wants in on the action. Check the credits on such albums as "Beat the Retreat," a collection of songs by Richard Thompson, or the Curtis Mayfield tribute "All Men Are Brothers," and you'll find superstars Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, R.E.M. and Sting among the contributors. Some projects even end up turning big names away; Kiss boasted that it had to say no to Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden when assembling its tribute album, while Larry Adler's "Glory of Gershwin" lacked room for Bette Midler and Bob Geldof.

Obviously, part of the appeal of cutting tribute tracks has to do with the fun of taking a classic song and remaking it in one's own image. In some cases, it gives an act the chance to show how it pTC has grown beyond its influences, as with the Black Sabbath homage "Nativity in Black," which finds the likes of Biohazard, Sepultura and Megadeth doing their best to rock harder than the Sabs did. Other albums offer the chance to show how completely a familiar song can be re-imagined, as with the

Cure's rendition of "Purple Haze" on the Jimi Hendrix tribute "Stone Free."

Still, there's more to the tribute phenomenon than merely indulging the stars' desire to play musical dress-ups. Tribute albums sell; that's why record companies keep making them. Cover albums sell even better, as the Top-Five debuts of both the Clapton and the Vandross albums make clear.

But the phenomenon runs even deeper. Check the current Billboard Hot 100, and you'll find that it's positively littered with cover tunes, from Luther Vandross and Mariah Carey's "Endless Love" (originally done by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross), to "Wild Night" by John Mellencamp and Me'shell Ndegeocello (originally done by Van Morrison) to Aaliyah's "At Your Best (You Are Love)" (originally done by the Isley Brothers). Add in rap's fondness for making new hits from funk oldies -- as, for instance, Ice Cube's "Bop Gun" draws from Parliament's "Bop Gun," or Coolio's "Fantastic Voyage" builds off of Lakeside's "Fantastic Voyage" -- and a distressing amount of contemporary pop seems like deja vu all over again.

Though it's tempting to blame all this on a rampant lack of creativity, it's likely that a different force is at work. The one thing both tribute albums and cover tunes stress is old-fashioned songwriting -- the kind of craftsmanship that emphasizes such qualities as melody and lyrics, constants that can be translated into almost any genre or style.

Spend some time with "The Glory of Gershwin," and you'll hear arrangements that feature everything from big-band horns to hard rock guitar to Caribbean percussion. But the potency of the songs -- George Gershwin's supple, easily sung melodies and brother Ira's wry, witty lyrics -- always come through.

Although Richard Thompson's own recordings work a fairly narrow vein of Celtic-influenced folk rock, the performances on "Beat the Retreat" range from punk rock to gospel, and from zydeco to blues.

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