If ‘Eternally Even’ was a venture into more modern production techniques and novel soundscapes, ‘Tribute to 2’ is very much its opposite. In what’s ostensibly a sequel to his George Harrison-inspired ‘Tribute To’, Jim James‘s latest release comprises songs by The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson among others. An Americana microcosm interwoven with Emerson Lake and Palmer‘s ‘Lucky Man’ and a couple of Al Bowlly jazz standards, the album emits a nostalgic radiance that will resonate with many.
Much of the album takes a very minimalist approach, highlighting James’ vocal talent. A steady hi-hat alone adorns the verse of the opener ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’, before the ornate arrangement of the chorus lifts the lid on what’s set to be a comprehensive sonic experience. Balmy piano chords aid James‘ heartfelt re-imagining of Sonny and Cher‘s ‘Baby Don’t Go’, while fingerpicked folk guitar only heightens the compassionate feel of his touching tribute to Dianne Izzo on ‘Wild Honey’.
Typical of early My Morning Jacket – ‘The Tennessee Fire’ in particular – much of the album gives off the effect of being recorded in large, open spaces. ‘Wild Honey’, ‘Crying in the Chapel’ and ‘The World is Falling Down’ all emit a celestial aura, conceived in a state of bliss and delivered from an empyrean pulpit in a vast marble arena. Indeed, James blooms in these spaces, his ethereal vocals permeating the most cavernous depths of the recordings, his trademark reverb rippling gently into the voids.
The variety of artists and styles covered on the album demands that James approach them openly, and the most fun songs on the album are those that exaggerate the tropes of their genres. On ‘Midnight the Stars and You’ and ‘Love is the Sweetest Thing’, James assumes the role of 1930s jazz crooner. Vicariously taking centre stage in a dimly lit bar, the My Morning Jacket frontman lilts sentimental lyrics over dancing couples and whiskey murmurs. It’s a role he relishes, gushing with buoyant sentimentality.
This notion of vicariousness is no more apparent than in Dylan‘s ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’, as James‘ caricatured country wail combines with the electric slide to hyperbolic country effect. This vocal contrivance makes the song no less enjoyable, further invoking southern saloons and tumble-weed terrain, a wistful loner on a rockabilly ranch. These Bowlly and Dylan songs in particular provide a surrogate for James to become these artistic archetypes, paying homage to the artists that he clearly reveres, whilst poignantly expressing the childlike awe that accompanies musical idolatry.
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The eclecticism of the artists covered does little to harm the overall coherence of the record. Themes of yearning and wistfulness naturally lend themselves to James‘ melancholic tenor, his haunting tremors synthesising resonantly with the familiarity and universality of each song. The life he breathes into each track individually ultimately produces a plaintive compilation, the product of a musician clearly still so imbued with the adoration he held for these artists as when he started out.
In spite of all the ruminant nostalgia, ‘Tribute to 2’ ultimately looks forward, finishing with a sanguine rendition of Irving Berlin‘s ‘Blue Skies’. In a world where nothing ever seems certain, it’s comforting to be reminded of when life was broken down into equal shares of love, hope, longing and reflection. At least in music, anyway.
‘Tribute to 2’ is out now via ATO Records. The albums full track listing is…
1 I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times (The Beach Boys)
2 Baby Don’t Go (Sonny & Cher)
3 Wild Honey (Diane Izzo)
4 Midnight, the Stars and You (Ray Noble & Al Bowlly)
5 Crying in the Chapel (The Orioles)
6 Funny How Time Slips Away (Willie Nelson)
7 Love is the Sweetest Thing (Ray Noble & Al Bowlly)
8 I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (Bob Dylan)
9 Lucky Man (Emerson, Lake & Palmer)
10 The World is Falling Down (Abbey Lincoln)
11 Blue Skies (Irving Berlin)