Monday, October 11, 2010

Verdict on Jealous Butcher's new Zep tribute album? It's a generational thing

The date is Nov. 12, 1955, and an aspiring young guitarist calling himself Calvin Klein finds himself playing at the high school's "Enchantment Under the Sea" dance in Hill Valley, Calif. Things are going well for him, so he busts out an impromptu rendition of "Johnny B. Goode" three years ahead of its time.

He is able to do so only because he is a visitor from the future, one with the benefit of seeing MTV as the cultural mainstay in the presentation of music to his generation.

While still within the context of the Chuck Berry song, the guitarist then unleashes a solo that would have exposed him as the unhinged Eddie Van Halen devotee he really is, if only these residents of the 1950s had ever heard of Eddie Van Halen. As Calvin slides on his knees in the middle of a lightning-fast guitar run, his backing band stops playing, the dancers stand staring and motionless, and he realizes he's lost everyone.

Retaining his composure, dusting himself off, and taking his place at the microphone again, he announces, "I guess you guys aren't ready for that, yet. But your kids are gonna love it."

The pertinent lesson this scene from Back to the Future illustrates is that music is a generational thing. Some of today's youth might think it's great to go through a vinyl collection and find something like Led Zeppelin, or they're downloading Mothership onto their iPods and discovering the music that way.

More rebellious youths might think that because Led Zeppelin T-shirts are all the rage, or because it's their parents' music, Led Zeppelin is a band is to be shunned and avoided at all cost. It's probably those kids who will be the prime audience for the 2-CD compilation being released Tuesday on the Jealous Butcher label out of Portland, Ore.

From the Land of Ice and Snow: The Songs of Led Zeppelin is something that may expose some Millennials, for the first time willingly at least, to songs credited to John Bonham, John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. That's because this is such an alternative set that it won't appeal to a broad audience.

If you were a fan of Led Zeppelin in the '70s, this set is not for you -- unless you find yourself scouring your children's MP3 players for modern diamonds in the rough. Only if you've already latched onto and embraced several of the forms of today's indie rock will you find any of this worth listening to. Otherwise, the only reason you should continue reading this is if you're thinking about gifting a copy to your kids.

Your kids are gonna love it. Maybe.

Some individual tracks:

  • Standing practically alone in being a faithful rendition of a Led Zeppelin song, "In the Light" exceeds eight minutes in this praiseworthy take by the Long Winters.
  • Meanwhile, M. Ward's lush guitar on the instrumental "Bron-Yr-Aur" is a brief solace among some genuinely offending tracks.
  • Other songs may be bearable for older ears, such as Chris Walla's earnest seven-minute version of "In the Evening."
  • Amy Annelle & the Shishi Valley Boys start off "Friends" as a palatable take, but certain listeners may find the vocals and the discordant strings grating.
  • The remake of "Out on the Tiles" by Super XX Men is really a lo-fi anti-folk original consisting of two strummed chords that just happens to have the same words as a Led Zeppelin song, with delicate piano and harmonica tracks making this one of the more pleasant tracks on the compilation.
  • Dave Pepper's take on "I'm Gonna Crawl" may not appeal to everybody but will win some hearts and minds. While it contains little of the emotion and dynamics present in the final track on In Through the Out Door, it's a fairly decent reading of the song nonetheless.
  • Even to this self-professed open-minded listener, some other tracks seem to be a joke the whole way through, such as an amateurish "Heartbreaker" by Lackthereof whose arrangement reeks of distortion levels seldom heard outside of malfunctioning audio equipment. To be heard over the noise, the lead vocalist screams his way through the words. When the requisite guitar solo comes in, an equally distorted playback of the Led Zeppelin studio version can be heard with the guitarist playing along. Of course, this guitarist can't keep up with the Jimmy Page of 1969 and doesn't even try, the result being an onslaught of sour notes giving way to a mêlée of feedback. The band's name, Lackthereof, may actually refer to the amount of effort that went into recording this. (Who knows if any effort was put into obtaining the rights to use the Led Zeppelin recording for the guitar solo portion?)
  • Knock Knock offers up a raucous rendition of "Moby Dick," and in the main riff, the band replaces any guitar soloing with what are essentially sound effects. As for the drum solo portion, it is supplemented by a reading of portions from Chapter 135 of a certain Herman Melville novel and other whale-related audio samples.
  • For the curious, "Stairway to Heaven" is covered by Kelly Blair Bauman, a male, who chooses to alter the song's infamous vocal melody. Instrumentally, the track eschews blasphemy until just when you're expecting to hear that familiar guitar solo; all we get are a few bars of understated slide. Maybe this is Bauman's way of throwing in the towel and admitting nothing could be played here that would do justice to Page's solo. Maybe we've been spared something potentially disastrous, advice a few other artists on the collection perhaps should have heeded.

Put simply, this set isn't for everybody, and it's hot and cold. Yet people under a certain age and/or of a certain mindset might find themselves more able to listen to and enjoy this unique tribute album.

For information on the making of the album, see the Jealous Butcher website.

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