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April 17, 1996

Paying Tribute

Tribute Albums - As always, great songs hold up, no matter who performs them. Recent tribute albums to Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen have tested this theory.

Leonard CohenFor example, Tower of Song (A & M Records 1995) includes performances by many big name stars, including Tori Amos, Elton John, Suzanne Vega, and Peter Gabriel. On the other hand, the Tom Waits' tribute (Step Right Up, Manifesto Records 1995) features more alternative acts, such as Tindersticks, Archers of Loaf, Pale Saints, and Dave Alvin (okay, Dave's not alternative). However, neither collection really gels, as the author's presence is missing.

Tom Waits' songs are extremely dark and moody, and that's exactly the reading given them on Step Right Up. Though some of the tracks are winners (including Alex Chilton's poppish "Downtown," and an old single from 10,000 Maniacs, "I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love With You"), the songs are generally too dark and twisted.

The Leonard Cohen tribute is an ambitious effort, since Jennifer Warnes has already recorded the definitive set of Cohen covers in Famous Blue Raincoat. Over the last 30 years, the multi-talented Cohen has released a compelling body of work, with songs that often cut to the quick. Unfortunately, the artists on Tower of Song frequently skim the surface, without finding the deeper meaning in his songs.

Tom WaitsAgain, there are exceptions. In particular, Don Henley's scorching version of "Everybody Knows" shows that there's still lots of life in this song. (This track can also be found as a hidden song on Henley's new greatest hits collection, Actual Miles (Geffen) as the unlisted 13th song).

For my money, a much better Cohen tribute is Hate Gibson's eerie reading of "Dance Me to the End of the World," off the Strange Days soundtrack. Cohen's an idiosyncratic songwriter, and it takes an idiosyncratic artist to breath new meaning into his songs. Unfortunately, Billy Joel (another contributor) doesn't cut it. In the end, both of these sets are disappointments.

Jonny PolonskyJonny Polonsky, Hi, My Name is Jonny (American Records 1996) - Hi, My Name is Jonny is the debut release from a 22-year old prodigy from Chicago who wrote, produced, performed, recorded, and engineered the entire album on an eight-track machine in the basement of his mother's house in Chicago. Is it death-defying? Is it pop and rock? Is it too short? The answer to all of the above is Yes.

According to Polonsky, "Hi, My Name is Jonny is ten songs in 24 minutes. You will laugh, cry, sing along, and shake your thing. While a goodly number of the songs deal with matters of the heart and other aspects of relationships, other songs touch on post-mortem astro-projection, a boating excursion turned fatal, and an ode to the joys of avoiding painful confrontation through napping."

Jonny PolonskyPolansky was led to Rick Ruben and American Records by labelmate Frank Black, who discovered him through Polansky's three demo tapes: "Aw, Blow It Out Your Ass!", "Premium White American," and "I Like Porn." Says Black, "Jonny has a great rock 'n roll swagger. He has that 'I-am-Phil-Spector' type of star quality. But, he's no poser and he has no chip on his shoulder. Plus, he knows what he's doing in a recording studio."

Which pretty much summarizes Hi, My Name is Jonny. To polish the disc, Polonsky engaged Brendan O'Brien (who has also worked with Nirvana) to mix the album. The result is an engaging pop/rock album, ala Elvin Costello and Nick Lowe.

Polansky has huge faith in his abilities (he used to refer to himself as The Amazing Jonny Polansky), and this self-recorded album (on which Polansky sings every part, and plays every note and instrument) is a remarkable debut. Polansky has a real talent, and, with the right backing band to give him prospective, could make a real impact.

Mega HitsVarious Artists, Super Fantastic Mega Smash Hits (Provda Records/Backyard 1995) - During the 70s heyday of singles collections, companies like K-Tel, Ronco, Pickwick, and Commonwealth licensed the biggest AM radio hits, threw them together on jam-packed albums, and then mass-marketed these collections on sensationalized television commercials. But truth be told, there were some fine singles in this material.

Superfantastic looks just like one of these 70s collections. And its supposed to. For the 15 cuts on Superfantasic, Pravda Records (a proud independent label from Chicago) has gathered 15 alternative rockers to strut their stuff. Surprisingly, many of the tracks hold up.

Thus, Vic Chesnutt's faithful version of "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" (originally performed by Vicki Lawrence) finds new meaning in this subtle cut, and the Fastbacks' version of Elton John's "Rocketman" displays all of the complexity in this song. (What is it really about? Drugs? An alienated individual? A space traveler?).

On the other hand, there's also some pure pop material, such as "Convoy" by The New Duncan Imperials (a song originally recorded by C. W. McCall), "Hooked on a Feeling" by The Slugs, and a cover of 10cc's "I'm Not in Love" by Red, Red Meat. The set is rounded out by Rex Daisy's version of John Sebastian's "Welcome Back."

All told, Superfantastic features some really cheesy cuts. And apparently, today's modern rockers were deeply influenced by these cheesy cuts. Which is kind of a scary thought. But you'll still like the music.

-- Randy Krbechek

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