There’s really no trick to what makes a good tribute album work. Presumably, it’s a luck-based endeavor. You pick an artist to celebrate, and then you ask a bunch of popular musicians to contribute. Once you have your list of contributors, you have to stand back and hope that every performance coheres with every other performance. Most tribute albums don’t work because it’s probably impossible to unify a randomly assembled gang of musicians, all recording in a variety of studios at different times across the globe, around a single approach. The bolder ones will get adventurous with their covers, and most will turn in faithful renditions under the pretense of being respectful.
The latter is exactly what happens with Rave On Buddy Holly. The makers of this tribute album have assembled an enviable list of guests — My Morning Jacket, Julian Casablancas, Nick Lowe, Paul McCartney, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, and the Black Keys are just a handful of the esteemed musicians who eagerly show up to pay tribute to the long-gone legend — but it’s mostly a lifeless affair. Worse still, it’s the sort of tribute album that is so homogeneous that you may find yourself wondering whether the subject of the tribute even deserves such reverence.
Yes, of course Buddy Holly deserves all the admiration he receives. After all, he made rock ‘n’ roll not just a safe place for stuttering nerds, social outcasts and general misanthropes; he made it a logical place for them. Holly reminded the world that most of us can’t come near Elvis’ swagger, and maybe that makes our pain and yearnings more poignant than those of the man who can get nearly any woman he wants.
But that’s not the Buddy Holly that’s represented on Rave On. If one were to formulate their opinion of Holly based on this album, they’d likely think he churned out anodyne, predictable pop tunes using the twelve-bar blues as his only format. The Black Keys limply kick things off with a dry version of “Dearest,” which leads into Fiona Apple & Jon Brion’s lazy take on “Everyday.” It’s a sad state of affairs when Paul McCartney (2011 McCartney, that is) provides the first, and one of the only, jolts of energy to be found. Amazingly, his spirited, piss-take version of “It’s So Easy” is the walk-off highlight of Rave On.
Not much else warrants extensive commentary. She & Him do what they always do. The Detroit Cobras do what they always do. At least Modest Mouse have the nerve to try and make “That’ll Be the Day” adapt to their weirdo sensibilities, even if the results aren’t terribly memorable. Kid Rock’s attempts at a soulful howl on “Well All Right” might be more convincing if not for all of the other musical crimes he’s committed over the years. And when it’s all over, you aren’t even left with the desire to hear the originals. That is an impressive feat for a tribute album.