Music » Music Etc.

ALL EARS — PAYING TRIBUTE

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Then there are tributes like Almost You: The Songs of Elvis Costello, which was put out by Austin's young Glurp label and will be released Tuesday via Bar/None. These are the labors of love, collections of artists hip enough to matter but not big enough to expect a lot of sales, who obviously care deeply about the songwriter being fêted. As with any various-artist comp, there will be hits and misses, but if the compilers are paying attention, the songs will all sound like they belong together.

They certainly do here: The mostly Texan roster has a strong roots accent, with acousto-friendly folks such as the Damnations and the Gourds' Kevin Russell setting the tone for a lot of stripped-back, lyric-centric interpretations of Elvis' tunes. In a lot of cases - as with the two versions of "Sleep of the Just" - the singers are doing you a big favor with their reverence for the man's words; sometimes the original versions were so pumped up, you would be forgiven for missing the brilliant imagery buried in the words. Not every song ought to be handled that way: "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" is hauntingly beautiful at Hem's slow, delicate pace, but doesn't bargain-basement immortality kind of demand a happier tempo?

Fastball's singer is a little too close to the mark on "Busy Bodies," but Grand Champeen's lovably raucous "No Action" gets at the original's energy without sounding Xeroxed. Other performers make the songs their own: Okkervil River goes off the rails on "Riot Act," Russell's back-porch "Indoor Fireworks" is appropriately sloppy and gin-soaked. Li'l Cap'n Travis takes the cake, though, opening "Blue Chair" with sweet chimes, singing pedal steel, and a vocal that is, to steal their old album title, "lonesome and losin'."

The Posies' Jon Auer does a terrific microscopic take on "Beyond Belief," but boy did it make me want to hear the original again. Lucky for me, Rhino's latest batch of EC reissues includes Imperial Bedroom, which opens with that masterpiece of atmosphere. Elvis' deep, echo-drenched whisper is a vacuum on that 1982 record, sucking you in with a sense of mystery that belies the poppy, Squeeze-like "Tears Before Bedtime" that follows it. On Rhino's bonus disc, an alternate version with far thinner vocals and a less dramatic pace shows what a difference a song's arrangement makes.

But back to tribute records. It came out a while back, but Total Lee! The Songs of Lee Hazlewood (Astralwerks) is just too cool to ignore. Don't confuse this guy with the similarly named but infinitely less complex Lee Greenwood; Hazlewood is one of the weirdest storytellers ever to make a living in country music. He went through a renaissance a few years ago when Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley reissued some of his discs, and this mysteriously orchestral, subtly studio-tweaky tribute is an expert update of the man's consistently out-of-time sound. Calexico shows up on "Sundown, Sundown," acknowledging that they owe as much of their mystique to Hazlewood as to Sergio Leone & Ennio Morricone. Immediately following that track is the one-two punch of mush-mouthed Johnny Dowd and the sweetly exotic chirp of Saint Etienne's Sarah Cracknell - a perfect evocation of the weird team-ups Hazlewood made in the '60s and '70s with Nancy Sinatra and Ann-Margaret. Those who need bigger names will be pleased to see Pulp's Jarvis Cocker and the Lemonhead's Evan Dando on the lineup.

Then again, if you're more interested in famous names than excellent music, maybe you would like to buy my copy of Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin?


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