When you’re (posing as) a music critic, you also need to be somewhat of a historian. That way, you can always make some obscure reference that adds validity to your review, and bolsters your indie cred. However, I’ve quickly come to the realization that I really need to brush up on my history lessons, and I’m not referring to VH-1’s version. Oh sure, I can drop the big names — Reed, Curtis, Drake — during a conversation, but if my life depended upon the outcome of a debate with Simon Reynolds, I’d be dead meat.
Now, I know a few things about Tim Buckley. Or rather, about his influence. I know Ivo Watts-Russell worships him, hence the fact that Tim Buckley covers popped up on the influential (and beautiful) This Mortal Coil albums. I know that many artists from today that I like cite him as a major influence. I know he was cut down in his prime. But anyone who has looked at the All-Music Guide knows that. Therefore, I hope it’s obvious that I’m approaching this tribute from a slightly different angle than others may do. I guess it’s somewhat ironic that I’m reviewing an album of Tim Buckley covers, because that’s the only thing I’m familiar with (thanks to This Mortal Coil).
Considering my knowledge of Buckley began with This Mortal Coil, it seems fitting that a song like “Morning Glory” is very reminiscent of the classic It’ll End In Tears. Brendan Perry makes up for his disappointing Eye of the Hunter with the haunting “Dream Letter.” Much more in the vein of Dead Can Dance’s songs like “The Carnival is Over,” we hear Perry’s voice, noble and solemn, singing over sorrowful keys and synth-strings. Mark Lanegan delivers “Café” with low, smoky vocals that plot and tunnel beneath the distant atmospherics and acoustic guitars and rumble and brood next to somber strings.
Shelleyan Orphan turns in “Buzzin’ Fly” — with it’s seductive vocals courtesy of Caroline Crawley and trip-hop-lite approach, it reminds me of why I liked Locust’s Morning Light so much. The album closes with “Song to the Siren.” While not as stirring as This Mortal Coil’s version (which is one of the most beautiful songs ever, cover or no), the Czars still create a track that’s quite lovely in its own right. However, Tim Buckley didn’t just influence ex-shoegazers and Irish castle-dwellers. The Friendly Science Orchestra turns in the just plain weird “Because Of You.” Ian Masters’ fragile vocals hover over wierd musical landscapes that consist of enough plucked strings, fluttering drones, and dreamy pedal steel to make any Elephant 6 band green with envy.
The compilation has a few disappointments, the biggest one being the Heather Duby contribution, “I Must Have Been Blind.” Ditching the harrowing atmospheres that made her Subpop debut such a strong release, Duby opts for a more “rock” approach, with bluesy, noisy guitars and a gutsier vocal style. But it doesn’t measure up to the standards her previous work set. Mike Johnson (“I Woke Up”) takes a similar approach as Mark Lanegan did, only more upbeat. But I find Lanegan’s track more alluring and evocative.
Mojave 3 covers “Love From Room 109 At The Islander,” which is far better than nearly everything on “Out Of Tune” (or “Bob Dylan 101” as I call it). But Neil Halstead’s vocals are as wane as ever, and while dreamy and lethargic enough, their performance still pales compared to their earliest efforts. Fortunately, Halstead’s solo cut, “Phantasmagoria In Two” is closer in spirit to the smoky “Ask Me Tomorrow,” as is Tram’s “Once I Was.” Dot Allison’s voice is far too sing-song to really work with grittier guitar and organ — it sounds like it should be paired with Saint Etienne-esque club beats and billowing guitars.
And there are the requisite unknowns and surprises. Geneva laces “Pleasant Street” with electronics and mirky beats that don’t sound too dissimilar from of U2’s more recent works. Andrew Montgomery even manages a fairly good Bono-esque wail that’s thankfully devoid of any showboating. And I thought I knew that the Lilys were going to sound like, but they threw me for a loop with “Strange Feelin,’ ” a blistering rocker that careens between ragged guitar chords, Kurt Heasley vamping it up on vocals, and a fiery harmonica.
I don’t really consider Sing a Song to You to be a “Cliff’s Notes” on the life and music of Tim Buckley. But what should be obvious is the wide range of artists and genres he influenced, from shoegazers and avant-garde popsters to former goth icons. Ultimately, though, the question should be whether or not a compilation like this makes me want to seek out the original. And the answer is yes, if only to satisfy my curiosity as to whether or not the original version of “Song to the Siren” lives up to the beauty that it inspired.