Jim James - Tribute To 2

by Mark Moody Rating:4 Release Date:2017-12-08
Jim James - Tribute To 2
Jim James - Tribute To 2

On the album cover of Jim James’ latest solo release Tribute To 2, the singer strikes the pose of the stereotypical silent movie villain.  He’s twirling the ends of his mustache as if he’s plotted to blow up the railway bridge with a stack of dynamite and a detonator.  Taking the metaphor a step further, not only does James succeed in blowing up the bridge, the body count is high - only a few of these cover versions are left relatively unscathed.  If Spike Jones and Yo La Tengo were tongue in cheek about “Murdering the Classics”, James takes a hatchet to them unlike anything seen since The Shining.  And speaking of The Shining, James offers up the scariest version of ‘Midnight, the Stars and You’ since Lloyd served Jack a drink at the Overlook Hotel bar, but more on that later.

James purportedly recorded these songs, starting with The Beach Boys classic ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’, in order to serve as a balm to the current state of affairs in America.  What’s on display throughout the album certainly isn’t the answer, and as we do so many days lately in the good ole U.S. of A., we just end up scratching our heads and asking ourselves why.  The Beach Boys song, as with most of the tracks here, is stripped down so far from the original as to lose the essence of the melody.  James is not of voice to carry the song without strong instrumentation and drifts from the original melody to that of ‘Caroline, No’ to Little Anthony & the Imperials ‘Going Out of My Head’ and back and forth.  Not a bad sentiment, but the tuneless meandering doesn’t do the song justice.

Of the other more modern tracks on display, the late songwriter Diane Izzo’s ‘Wild Honey’ (also covered effectively by The Fruit Bats) and Sonny & Cher’s ‘Baby Don’t Go’ are relatively unharmed with the latter being one of the better songs on the album.  ‘Wild Honey’ starts strong, but by the end digresses into tuneless warbling for no apparent reason - did he just get bored part way through the recording?  Among the broken and battered, Willie Nelson’s ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’ is given a talked through treatment a’la Tom T. Hall, with no disrespect to Mr. Hall, but that’s the best way to describe it.  It does nothing for the song and if your first name isn’t Al and your last name isn’t Green you really have no business trying to tackle one of Nelson’s best songs.  James’ high pitched warble also makes an appearance here and to put it kindly is distracting.   If you ever wanted to hear Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s ‘Lucky Man’ sung to the tune of ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ here’s your chance, and it’s as dull as it sounds.  Finally, Bob Dylan’s ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ is given a thick tongued hick shtick treatment that does it no favors.  

So to revert back to Al Bowlly’s ‘Midnight, the Stars and You’ and the other “standards” on display here, this is where things get really ugly and weird.  These songs aren’t just murdered, unnatural acts are committed before putting them out of their misery.  It’s as if the producer says to James - “hey you know that weird warble thing you did on ‘Wild Honey’, well let’s really pile it on here good and thick”.  ‘Midnight’ definitely suffers the worst indignities, with a minute’s lead in of pedestrian piano, a minute of campy singing, and then at 2:07 into the song James unleashes an ungodly salvo of humming, warbling, and high pitched hysteria the likes of which haven’t been heard since Florence Foster Jenkins graced the stage at Carnegie Hall.  My cat, rest her soul, made similar noises in her final throes.  If this was meant to be funny it is, and I did laugh out loud, but milder versions of this inanity recur throughout the album and leave scars on the undeserving.  If Al Bowlly’s not in heaven, per Mr. Richard Thompson, then he’s definitely spinning in his grave.  ‘Love Is the Sweetest Thing’ gets similar treatment and the balance just isn’t worth commenting on.  

In full disclosure, I have never been a big fan of the jam rock aspects of James’ primary vehicle, My Morning Jacket, but this is so far removed from that approach that I can insist I had no negative bias coming to this.  In fact, I was so blown away by his take on The Band’s ‘It Makes No Difference’ on the Endless Highway compilation from several years back that I had high expectations coming to this review.  Unfortunately, this album is certainly not the cure for what ails us, but I am concerned about what may be ailing good old Jim James.  He's just not made for these times, he doesn't seem to be made for these tunes either.                  

 

Overall Rating (3)

0.5 out of 5 stars

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