various artists: Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons

various artists
Return of the Grievous Angel:
A Tribute to Gram Parsons

Almo Sounds

THE LATE GRAM Parsons was justly credited with inventing "country rock" in the mid-Sixties, honing that creation with the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and on his own fine solo albums. But this tribute collection, produced by frequent Parsons collaborator Emmylou Harris, doesn't quite do his influence justice. The album's lineup is solid enough, but Parsons was as much a touchstone for the Mekons as Dwight Yoakam, and neither are represented here. With the Cowboy Junkies, Sheryl Crow, and other softies dominating Return of the Grievous Angel, the project feels more Adult Alternative than No Depression.

Parsons was a fine songwriter, but his status as an alt-country icon often seems to come from the cool, dilettantish distance he kept from the subjects of song--a quality that often crept into the Georgia-born Harvard dropout's work. Yet considering the immortality of his best tunes, it comes as no surprise to hear Parsons chestnuts faring pretty well in the hands of, say, Beck. It's a rare "tribute" album indeed that teaches us anything new about either the artist or his admirers, and this one merely confirms what we already knew about the contributors. Elvis Costello's snooze through "Sleepless Nights" shows he's become far too precious a singer for anyone's material. Gillian Welch's weak go at the angelic "Hickory Wind" proves she's a hopeless hollow body. And Wilco's rousing arena-ready rendition of the Byrds' "One Hundred Years From Now" proves they're at their best when down with O.P.P.--other people's product.

Predictably, the best moment comes from the album's best singer. Resident gift-from-the-gods Lucinda Williams offers a big-mouthed take on the title track (with David Crosby providing muted background vocals), and the result is the album's obvious standout. (Beck's hookup with Emmylou during a stately version of the classic "Sin City" is also worth hearing.) Ultimately, Return is a decent set, but any Gram novices looking for an introduction should know that his only two proper "solo" albums, GP and Grievous Angel, are packaged on one easy-to-find disc that provides more bang for your buck than this tribute. Even when you're dealing with a guy who almost invented our country-rock ideal of the ersatz-authentic, the real thing is always the best way to go.

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