“Rave On Buddy Holly”

I can’t help but compare this Buddy Holly tribute album to I’m Not There, the truly spectacular Dylan tribute that came out a few years back; that’s partly because Rave On assembles many of the same artists from the last go-round, and is also the product of some of the same executive producers, but it’s also because, quite simply, I think Rave On is the most high-profile album of its kind since that Dylan record. I confess that, in this (perhaps slightly unfair) match-up, Rave On doesn’t come out looking great. But if Rave On is no I’m Not There, it’s somewhat due to the fact that Buddy Holly was no Bob Dylan. I mean no disrespect; it’s just that, where Bob’s labyrinthine compositions offer ample material for creative reconfiguring, Holly’s songs were much simpler and leaner, and the way Buddy himself recorded them is pretty much the only way that really makes sense.

The fact that the artists here have slightly less to work with makes it all the more puzzling to find that Rave On is a collection that advertises itself as a set of radical reinventions. Certainly the Dylan set had its fair share of curveballs, but much of its success came from its careful balance of reinventions and relatively straightforward readings. An album leaning too far toward the former, of course, runs the risk of irreverence, while a turn toward the latter eventually results in sheer pointlessness. I’m Not There walked a fine line; Rave On is, on the whole, a lot more off-kilter.

There are a few numbers that play it straight, though, and even these songs make it clear just how indebted to Holly’s enduring legacy many of these artists are. Julian Casablancas brings a lot of echo and reverb to his reading of the title song, and it’s remarkably effective in how it sounds like a relatively straight version of the original tune while also sounding like vintage Casablancas; he’s a bespectacled hipster who finds himself in the nonchalant Buddy Holly tradition, I suppose, and the track feels like a tribute to both artists at the same time. On the other hand, She & Him’s “Oh Boy” makes it so clear that the duo finds their footing in pre-Beatles rock and roll– with all the innocence and romance that it implies– that the song really just ends up sounding like a so-so She & Him track.

As for the reinventions, I’ll get the stinkers out of the way first. Cee-Lo Green probably takes the cake here with a truly gaudy, showy version of “(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care,” something like this album’s equivalent of Sufjan Stevens’ completely tone deaf I’m Not There contribution. At under two minutes in length it nevertheless feels like the most overblown thing here, and makes a compelling case for why Holly’s lean, direct approach was typically the best fit for the kinds of songs that he wrote. And Florence and the Machine— a band I like– should receive credit for their imagination, at least, in doing “Not Fade Away” as what the press release calls “industrial New Orleans.” That’s a fitting description, I suppose, but it’s not at all a good thing.

But there is much to like here; a mixed bag it may be, but it’s largely good stuff, or at least decent enough. The best thing here is Paul McCartney’s contribution– no big surprise, given how Macca has always idolized Holly. His “It’s So Easy” is a boisterous, wisecracking blast of rock and roll energy, one of the best things he’s recorded in ages, and his impish wit and gleeful charisma make me wish he’s record a whole album of stuff like this (a follow-up to the quite wonderful Run Devil Run, I guess). Second-place honors go to the album-opening Black Keys contribution, which pays homage to Holly but also continues with their Brothers experiments in spooky, minimal R&B.

What else? Some of the album’s greatest pleasures come from some relatively straightforward but nevertheless charming cuts by Nick Lowe and John Doe, who don’t take great liberties but do infuse their selections with a bit of their own personality. (Doe was also present on I’m Not There, where his “Pressing On” was a highlight; he is produced here, as he was there, by Joe Henry.) Modest Mouse does a sinister and creepy version of “That’ll Be the Day” that feels quite organic, and like Modest Mouse through and through. My Morning Jacket’s song is lovely, and more natural-sounding than anything off their last couple albums. And God help me but I do enjoy Patti Smith’s hippy-dippy, mystical take on “Words of Love.” Cheesy though it may be, it’s also quite lovely.

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