Buddy Holly never lived to see his 23rd birthday, but that isn’t stopping anyone from celebrating his 75th this week, with the rather belated installation of a star on Hollywood Boulevard and the release of yet another all-star tribute. Maybe now he’ll finally be recognized by the youth of America for something other than stealing Elvis Costello’s look, right?
“Listen to Me: Buddy Holly” is the second Holly tribute to come out in two and a half months, so you’ll be forgiven if you need someone to sort out the confusion — especially since each one features a Beatle. The first was “Rave On Buddy Holly,” released in late June and leaning toward indie-rock types like the Black Keys, Florence + the Machine, and Modest Mouse, though Paul McCartney put in a screaming appearance.
This week’s unrelated follow-up sticks almost entirely to mainstream elder statesmen, with Ringo Starr as the requisite Fab on duty. Peter Asher served as exec producer, which is significant, since he set the first real posthumous Holly renaissance in motion in the mid-‘70s by recording Linda Ronstadt’s reputation-reviving versions of “That’ll Be the Day” and “It’s So Easy.”
Ironically, perhaps, the two albums suffer from opposite problems. The alterative artists on “Rave On” were apparently encouraged to retool Holly’s songs so considerably that the melodic life sometimes got snuffed out of them. As for the new “Listen to Me,” Asher’s sensibility isn’t exactly what anyone would call edgy, and there’s a stodginess to a lot of the contributions that could have benefitted from a bit of the other album’s adventurous approach.
Two highlights come early: Jackson Browne was born to sing the ballad “True Love Ways,” and British rockabilly queen Imelda May finds the fire in “I’m Looking for Someone to Love.” Most everything else counts as either boomer-safe or in the bizarre curio category.
A couple of newish groups make their way into the mix. The Fray do an outright U2 impersonation on “Take Your Time,” so if you ever wanted to hear Bono sing Buddy, here’s your chance (sort of). The weirdest choice is Cobra Starship, whose mixed-gender lead singers do a sort of contempo-Human-League take on “Peggy Sue” that almost clicks, in the corniest possible way.
But Brian Wilson’s “Listen to Me” and Ringo’s “Think It Over” are just the kind of passable, going-through-the-motions efforts you might expect from their latest recordings.
Shorn of her usual studio tricks, and letting her voice go nearly punk-rock-ragged, Stevie Nicks sounds unrecognizable on “Not Fade Away” — almost like a distaff Billy Corgan! — which might have been rewarding if the slick backup track were half as rough as she is. Sticking closer to vocal type, Train’s Pat Monahan gives “Maybe Baby” an overly sweetened modern spin that isn’t just maybe but definitely dullsville.
The album ends with a couple of wan contributions from actors, including an “It’s So Easy” that has Zooey Deschanel playing it overly straight. That’s followed by Eric Idle doing “Raining in My Heart” in a variety of comic voices — complete with goofy sound effects — that not even the most hardcore Python fan could find funny.
Even with all-star friends like these, Holly still needs better buddies.