Monday, June 14, 2010

Review: Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows: The Songs of John Prine

Various Artists (tribute)
Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows: The Songs of John Prine

When I first heard of this compilation a while back, I was elated—all my favorite modern-yet-rootsy artists covering one of America’s most prominent songwriters. High expectations aside, Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine does a solid job of paying tribute to Prine’s work, which is the ultimate goal of a tribute album. If nothing else, these songs highlight his talent far more than the skills of the artists themselves, making for an all-around pleasant collection for Prine fans both new and old.
For the most part, the picks are well-suited to the songs, even if the Drive-By Truckers’ “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin” proved a little too honky-tonk for my taste and the mere trace of Lambchop/Kurt Wagner’s voice has always struck me as atrocious and even more so on Prine’s “Six O’Clock News,” as it grates and shuffles in every non-melodious direction.
So that one may be a number you choose to skip. Which is alright, because a later track features the reigning lords of indie-Americana, Deer Tick, who do sweet justice to “Unwed Fathers” with a subtle dobro slide and whispery guest vocals from Liz Isenburg. Jim James rests his lovely falsetto on the heels of a discreet pedal-steel mandolin-like sound to make “All the Best” into a far more charming version than Prine’s original scathing “love” song.
Conor Oberst makes “Wedding Day in Funeralville” almost too his own, as it sounds like it’s right off Conor Oberst. Similarly, Those Darlins’ take on “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian” is just like the rest of their catalog.
The album is redeemed primarily by three songs, covers by The Avett Brothers, Justin Vernon and Josh Ritter. The Avett Brothers, well in the prime and possible peak of their musical career, bring Prine’s song back to its rocking potential on “Spanish Pipedream.” It sounds like they could have written it; the chorus waxes nostalgic for the simple life, the pursuit of a woman and a righteous lifestyle: “Plant a little garden / eat a lot of peaches / try to find Jesus / on your own.”
Vernon predictably takes “Bruised Orange,” to a far more serious and somber level; he has a lot of feelings. But I for one would rather highlight the poetic and profound Prine than the cheesy, hoe-down late-80’s one, so I appreciate his heartfeltness.
But it’s the fourth track on the record that does the most to honor Prine’s work. Josh Ritter’s version of “Mexican Home” is a quiet wonder, a restrained, poignant tour de force that sets the stage for the rest of the album. His diction is so clear that it highlights Prine at his most prosaic: “And the cuckoo clock has died of shock / and the windows feel no pain / and the air is as still as the throttle on a funeral train.”
Even by way of regional representation, this album has all corners covered, from the Redwood Forest to the New York island—something that Prine would appreciate and something which lends a diversity to the songs. We’ve got Wisconsin by way of North Carolina (Vernon), the upper Northwest (Ritter), Tennessee and Kentucky (OCMS and MMJ), Rhode Island (Deer Tick), Nebraska (Oberst), Alabama (DBT), and California (Watkins). After all, it’s not (it ain’t) called Americana for nothing (for nuthin’). These songs are so pleasing because they have been wrought through history, written in one era and sung in another, all aching to cut cleanly or raggedly at the story of the American people and to emerge nothing but bona-fide faithful to it.
And if you’ve ever heard a John Prine song, you can vouch that he is nothing if not authentic; his music is the difference between using an electric drill and getting down on your hands and knees to dig in the dirt. His work here is not diluted by the presence of new voices, but rather bolstered in its adaptability and broad appeal.
-- Caroline Klibanoff

No comments: