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Return Of The Grievous Angel: A Tribute To Gram Parsons - Album Review

A gift from my friend Terry Smith, I had never heard this 1999 tribute album to the great Gram Parsons despite having pretty much everything that has been released on which he is featured. As this a tribute album with many different contributing artists, rather than a cohesive artistic statement, I will treat each track individually instead of as a whole. With that said here goes:

"She" - The Pretenders & Emmylou Harris
This is okay, but it is too vanilla. Chrissie Hynde is a great rock vocalist, and has produced much great music but her voice doesn't work for me here. Things improve when Emmylou comes in, but what song isn't improved by Emmylou Harris singing on it? 

"Ooh Las Vegas" - Cowboy Junkies 
A stunning, and barely recognisable as the original, take on this track. It sounds beamed in from outer space and is an early standout. Hearing this makes me want to see what the Sisters of Mercy would do with this track.

"Sin City" - Beck & Emmylou Harris
This is so close to nailing it that it feels more of a disappointment than "She". Emmylou is obviously peerless as usual. Beck gets the tone and country stylings right but he just needs to relax and lean back into the vocal a bit more. Feels like he's trying too hard. So near but so far.

"$1000 Wedding" - Evan Dando & Julianna Hatfield 
Gram's greatest song and performance, and in my top 3 all time songs. HANDLE WITH CARE. Unlike Beck, slacker king Evan Dando gets the relaxed delivery bang on, the only problem is the whole song is played too fast. "Supposed to be a funeral" after all. Biggest disappointment on the album. 

"Hot Burrito #1" - The Mavericks
Now this gets it right. The vocals spot on. Rich and luxurious, leaning back into it. The harshness of the rhythm cuts through the slickness of the vocal. Obviously never going to match the crushing vocal on the original, but a very good effort. 

"High Fashion Queen"- Chris Hillman & Steve Earle
Given the heritage of both performers it is no surprise that they sound completely at home and give a convincing, if not outstanding version. Very nice.

"Juanita" - Sheryl Crow & Emmylou Harris
The best of the Emmylou collaborations by far, and almost the best effort on the whole album. The difference between this and "She" is that Sheryl Crow disappears inside the song, rather than sitting on top of it. Stunning version.

"Sleepless Nights"- Elvis Costello
Oh dear. I prefer angry and fired up Costello. This nearly sent me to sleep.

"Return Of The Grievous Angel" - Lucinda Williams & David Crosby
Top stuff, the stellar alt-country icon absolutely nails this. Her voice is so expressive and if you've not heard her staggeringly good double live album "Live @ The Fillmore" make sure the first thing you do after reading this is to seek it out.

"One Hundred Years From Now" - Wilco 
This more than any other song here reveals that this album is 20 years old. Whilst Jeff Tweedy and company knock this out of the park with a rambunctious version, it really is a throwback to the "A.M." and "Being There" days before they went all in with the art rock. It'd be good to hear them roll back the years and do something like this again. Smoking lead guitar work to boot.

"A Song For You" - Whiskeytown 
And here we have it. Inhabit the song I say above, and boy do they do that here. A reminder of the days when Ryan Adams was looking like the potential second coming of Gram. Listen to him and Gillian Welch do "Helpless" by Neil Young, I have the bootleg of this, (which is the same as the Youtube version below), but the audio is pretty poor. However you can glimpse visions of a 21st century Gram and Emmylou that could have been. 


"Hickory Wind" - Gillian Welch
Another artist who is a perfect fit and on this version continues the boundary pushing that Gram started with the addition of keyboard pads that add a sinister sadness. The vocal clipping accentuates the otherworldly feel.

"In My Hour Of Darkness" - The Rolling Creekdippers
It works, but lacks the heartbreak of the original. 

In summary, those versions that stick closely to the original only really work when the vocalist can feel the song and live in the performance. Admiration of Gram or fandom doesn't really cut it. It is telling that the best performances come from those who work in a similar genre and seem to inhabit the song, such as Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams, Wilco and Gillian Welch. Overall a very enjoyable take on some classic songs with a couple of tracks that are inessential, unlike the music of Ingram Cecil Parsons which will remain forever essential.

"Calling me home.........."

Comments

  1. Great review Steven and glad there were nuggets you liked . Really glad the Whiskeytown song was a favourite as that got me into Ryan Adams and as you say , oh what might have been . . .
    So I have today’s listening sorted , this album with your notes and Lucinda at the Fillmore - btw if you haven’t heard her doing Factory seek it out

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