Jim James

Tribute to 2

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Back in 2009, Jim James released Tribute To, a heartfelt, organically produced EP of George Harrison covers. Tribute to 2 has no single artist focus -- it's comprised of covers James' cut over several years in different studios. He starts off auspiciously with a spacy, soulful reading of Brian Wilson's "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," that touches Isaac Hayes' mighty arranging skills. James was writing liner notes to a reissue of Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul when he listened through its sidelong read of Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," and began singing the words to the Wilson tune. He used the hypnotic backbeat, sparse but layered strings, reverb, and strategically placed horns to complete a recognizable but nonetheless transformative version of Wilson's original. He follows it with a piano and multi-tracked vocal harmony read of Sonny & Cher's "Baby Please Don't Go." Its simplicity resonates with the emotional sincerity in the lyric. There are two strange readings of tunes by Ray Noble and Al Bowly in "Love Is the Sweetest Thing" and "Midnight, the Stars, and You." The former offers a touch of blues by way of late-'40s New Orleans, while the latter self-consciously attempts to re-create the creepiness of the song's appearance in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. It's interesting -- once. Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away" is mealy-mouthed and loose, feeling more like James trying to channel Tom T. Hall's sense of lonesome drama than its composer's tender, bittersweet resignation. He delivers a lo-fi, countrified take on the Orioles' nugget "Crying in the Chapel" with only a bucket of vocal reverb and an acoustic guitar, and it works. The late Diane Izzo's "Wild Honey" is sympathetically re-created here with an approach Mickey Newbury might have taken, with its lithe acoustic guitars, spacious delivery, and existential ache. The full-on honky tonk band version of Bob Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" sounds like it was recorded by an intoxicated singer trying to whip up imagined hillbilly authenticity. The wanton whimsy of the original is lost and replaced with an imagined projection of vulnerability, but the musical arrangement contradicts it. James' simple approach to Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "Lucky Man" takes liberties with pace, phrasing, and tempo, but is nonetheless quite moving. Abbey Lincoln's late-period masterpiece "The World Is Fallin' Down," was no doubt inspired by James' collaborations with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, but her fluid, bluesy swing is nowhere to be found here. Instead, its lo-fi recording finds James with acoustic guitar and harmonium delivering a near-folk song approach. That said, his lovely falsetto gets multi-tracked and reaches into the lyrics' cracks to allow its emotional depth and the desire for comfort and hope to emerge. The set closes with a short, seemingly throwaway version of "Blue Skies" that feels tossed off. Ultimately, Tribute to 2 is uneven and fuzzy. When it works, it's lovely; when it doesn't, it's a head-scratcher. This is for fans only.

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