Paul Burch: “Words of Love: Songs of Buddy Holly”

2011 may well be remembered as the Year of Buddy Holly– a strange pronouncement to make, given that the man’s been dead since 1959, yet where we are, celebrating the 75th anniversary of his birth with a slew of tribute albums. Just over a month ago we had the multi-artist compilation Rave On, and before the year is through we’ll get another commemorative disc, one that will feature many of the same songs and even a few of the same performers. Between the two we have Word of Love, the work of just one man– Paul Burch– and his mighty WPA Ballroom ensemble. Is it all a bit much? Maybe so, but hear this: If ever there was an artist perfect for the task of breathing new life into Holly classics, it’s Paul Burch. His record is, unsurprisingly, the one I’d pick, were we only allowed one Holly tribute per year.

The only caveat I have is that I love Burch as a singer and a recordmaker, but I also love him as a songwriter, and, given the choice, I’d much prefer an album of new Burch compositions. Given that Words of Love follows the masterful c&w rock-and-soul feast Still Your Man doesn’t do anything to dampen the slightly anticlimactic effect of this Holly disc; it’s like your favorite filmmaker directing a remake of a movie you’ve seen a few times already. That said, Burch is a man who seems to be cut from something of the same cloth as Holly. His own records are awash in unvarnished romance and earnest, heart-on-sleeve warmth. He’s a crooner with roots in country and blues but ultimately very little use for genre distinctions. So no big shock: He does some sublime things with these Buddy Holly songs.

Leave it to Burch– who else– to reconnect “Midnight Shift” to its rockabilly roots in a way that even Holly never realized. That song and “Think it Over” are steady, old-school rock and rollers that sound like they could have been cut at Sun Studios, right down to the slapback bass. And leave it to Burch to do croon “Everyday” as such a winsomely simple and direct love song that it redeems it from decades of use in TV commercials and reminds us of the sweet, whispered lover’s prayer it was always meant to be.

Burch’s readings of these songs are not radical reinventions, necessarily, but they are– consistently, from the first song to the last– the one thing none of the songs on Rave On can really claim: Ragged. There’s a ramshackle feel to the whole disc, a careening energy that begins with a fiddle-led, hoedown version of “Rave On.” (Truly, it’s the best version of the song I can remember– including Holly’s.) Some of the songs swagger like the earliest rock and roll, strutting with all the optimism of young love and all the romance and endless possibility that early rock offered. “Not Fade Away,”for example, has a spontaneous, rough draft quality to it, not because it feels incomplete but because it feels like it could have gone anywhere. Other songs are little more than sweet, front-parlor whispers. “I Guess it Doesn’t Matter Anymore” is stripped of everything but naked emotion and Burch’s sweet singing.

Speaking of which, anyone thinking this might be some kind of stopgag will find no evidence of that here; Burch pours himself into these songs with the same vigor and charisma he brings to his own material. I think it’s fair to say, in fact, that this might be his best turn yet as a singer (and I don’t give that one up easy, so strong and enduring is my love for Still Your Man). Anyway, the point is that everything on this record is really charming and fine, and what’s more, nearly every one of Burch’s covers improves upon most any other performances of the same material I can think of. (I’ll still throw “It’s So Easy” to McCartney– what can I say? I love the ridiculous bluster of his rendition.) Burch’s stripped-down and ruggedly romantic songcraft fines a neat mirror in these Holly performances, and the album is not only as rewarding a Holly tribute as we’re ever likely to get, but– more importantly, I think– it’s wonderfully true to Paul Burch.


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