VARIOUS ARTISTS Return Of The Grievous Angel A Tribute To Gram Parsons (Almo Sounds)
Tribute albums are an unpredictable breed, but this one looks far more interesting than most of the genre, boasting a roster of artists that includes Beck, Evan Dando and Julianna Hatfield, Elvis Costello and the frequently fine Wilco, along with Gram Parsons' former musical partner Emmylou Harris, who duets on a couple of tracks. And before you assume (as I did) that Almo Sounds are some precocious little backstreet indie outfit, note that the company is run by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss (the 'A' and 'M' in A & M respectively, the company for whom Parsons' band The Flying Burrito Brothers once recorded), and is responsible for bringing the goth-pop of Garbage to some territories.
I won't recount the details of Gram Parsons' incredibly creative, cruelly curtailed life and career here - the booklet essay tells you most of what you need to know. Suffice it to say that most of the tracks featured here are more than worthy of the memory of the man who almost single-handedly invented country rock, and even the clunkers - The Mavericks' drum-machine assisted holler through "Hot Burrito #1", Whiskeytown's brave but doomed attempt on Parsons' finest composition, "A Song For You" - are only that in relative terms. Best bits include Beck and Emmylou's duet on "Sin City", Mr Hansen ably demonstrating just why Johnny Cash was moved to comment, "He's got that mountain music in his blood", the return of Evan Dando (presumed missing in action since the last unlovely Lemonheads album) who, with Julianna Hatfield, comes closest to resurrecting the spirit of Parsons and Harris on a brisk "$1,000 Wedding" and Wilco's thunder through the old Byrds tune "One Hundred Years From Now". Elsewhere Elvis Costello - fast becoming some kind of human karaoke machine following his association with Burt Bacharach (and anyone willing to wager that Mr McManus nabs the Lifetime Achievement Award at next year's Brits?) - contributes a sensitive reading of "Sleepless Nights", light years away from his shouty take of "She" on the "Notting Hill" soundtrack, The Pretenders and Emmylou make a shuffly "She" and The Cowboy Junkies a slowed-down and blurred-out "Ooh Las Vegas". The album closes with "In My Hour Of Darkness", performed by one-off alt-country supergroup The Rolling Creekdippers featuring Victoria Williams, former Jayhawk Mark Olsen and a slew of Nashville heavyweights. Originally to be found as the final song on the posthumously issued "Grievous Angel" album, the ominous lines "I knew his time would surely come/But I did not know just when" recast it as Gram's own "Fruit Tree".
"Return Of The Grievous Angel" isn't the world's greatest tribute album - unlike, for example, the Richard Thompson celebration "Beat The Retreat" there's less fun to be had listening to this than the original recordings. And it might have been a better album if contributions from the likes of Lambchop, Sparklehorse, Golden Smog or Lullaby For The Working Class had elbowed out some of the starrier names. Even so, "Return Of The Grievous Angel" is a job well done, and if you enjoy the music of any of the contributors you can buy with confidence. It's all in a good cause too, proceeds going to the Vietnam Veterans Of America Foundation's "Campaign For A Landmine Free World".