By Eric Webb
This is the story of a boy named Buddy. He wore thick-rimmed black glasses, not because it was cool, but because it was the 1950s. He helped shape American rock ‘n’ roll. He died very young. He was played in movies by Gary Busey and Frankie Muniz. Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo looks marginally like (and sang a song about) him.
Buddy Holly is a legend, according to the people who call entertainers legends. Every now and then, groups of (perhaps less) famous people get together to pay homage to legends. We call this the “cover album.” Like most cover albums, “Rave On Buddy Holly” is both wildly uneven and excitingly novel.
There’s are three ways an artist can record a cover:
1) Inject the original song with your band’s own flavor, not overtaking the original, but giving it a loving high five.
2) Record a wholesale imitation of the original. This is boring, safe and as unsatisfying as a Lindor chocolate filled with water.
3) Blow the song up with your own creative dynamite and go nuts.
It’s difficult to judge an album like this, where there is virtually no collaborative, cohesive vision unifying the whole project. Fortunately, artists on a good tribute album should have a common goal: Give props to the original musician and have fun. “Rave On Buddy Holly” contains all of the above approaches, to varying degrees of success.
When it comes to injecting their own flavor into Holly’s tunes, no one brings their A-game on this album like the ladies. She & Him’s take on “Oh Boy” is everything you would want out of a solid cover. It helps that Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward’s normal aesthetic isn’t that far removed from Holly’s. Florence + The Machine, Karen Elson and Jenny O. follow up closely behind, with the latter’s track a particular pleasure due to an undeniably adorable pixie country twang.
There are several tracks on “Rave On,” however, that go above and beyond the call of cover. You know how Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” made the cultural consciousness forget about Nine Inch Nails, and how the Gary Jules cover of Tears For Fears’ “Mad World” on the Donnie Darko soundtrack gets infinitely more play than the original? It’s because they captured the lightning of the originals in a bottle, then smashed the bottle and let the electricity run wild.
Which brings us to Cee Lo.
At 1:31, Cee Lo Green’s cover of “(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care” is almost as quick as lightning. But in a minute and a half, Cee Lo’s aggressively distinctive voice justifies this album’s existence. With that retro gospel howl, he manages to make any song sound like the original version. “Baby, I Don’t Care” is upbeat, alluringly distant, propelled by strumming guitars and, oh yes, the epitome of fun. It’s a felony that it’s so short.
Speaking of people making songs their own, Patti Smith apparently heard that someone was doing a Buddy Holly tribute album and said, “You know what’s awesome? Incense. And candles. And cats and posters of dragons.” Her cover of “Words of Love” is straight up weird. That’s not bad. I don’t know if the word “enjoy” is appropriate here, but respect is due to the mad poet Smith for taking the challenge and running all the way to Mordor with it.
Paul McCartney turns in a rollicking good time, which makes sense. He was a Buddy Holly fan before you were born. Worth mentioning is Modest Mouse, who definitely make “That’ll Be the Day” less Holly and more Mouse, to debatable effectiveness (it certainly doesn’t improve the original). Lou Reed’s “Peggy Sue” is a sad, sluggish, murky mess that makes the listener embarrassed for such a time-tested musician.
There is one song, though, that does nothing short of performing a miracle. Forget the Red Sea parting. Forget turning water into wine. “Rave On Buddy Holly” is home to “Well All Right” as performed by Kid Rock. It is so good that it justifies Kid Rock’s continued consumption of oxygen. It’s not good for Kid Rock. It is good. The normal, purely awesome, “I will put this on my iPod” version of good. It’s snarling, it’s supported by a jubilant horn section and it rocks. You don’t need to make excuses for liking this. Plus, it’s the music equivalent of seeing your ne’er-do-well, sleazy cousin finally make something of himself, stop selling pot and get a respectable office job.
With a couple of other exceptions like the Black Keys’ track, the rest of the album is largely forgettable, which is a true testament to how much the artists in question dropped the ball. It takes effort to make classic songs unremarkable. On a listless cover of “Every Day,” Fiona Apple’s unforgettable voice is wasted in every way. And it’s a particular shame that the perpetually-bored-to-tears Julian Casablancas is graced with the title track, in which the Strokes frontman’s apathy is positively contagious.
As a collective album, “Rave On Buddy Holly” may not be the best, but it’s just like with any collection of covers. It’s exciting to listen to new interpretations of a classic artist’s oeuvre filtered through a modern lens. It makes treats like Cee Lo Green all the more delicious when you stumble upon them.
(3) “It’s So Easy” – Paul McCartney
(5) “(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care” – Cee Lo Green
(10) “Oh Boy” – She & Him
(15) “Well All Right” – Kid Rock