Cult heroes Alexander ”Skip” Spence and Gram Parsons attract particularly protective fans, and for such music obsessives there are few things worse than hearing a favorite song mangled by some clumsy, cred-hungry pop star (see Scott Weiland’s ”Time of the Season” from Austin Powers 2 or virtually every torturous second of this year’s Clash tribute). Good thing, then, that most of the musicians on two new tribute albums seem to be members of that devoted community.
More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album is a track-by-track remake of Oar, the classic 1969 album from psychedelic pioneer Skip Spence, a onetime member of Moby Grape and Jefferson Airplane. (The album also includes an unbilled ’90s recording from the singer.) Though little known outside of record-collector circles, Oar is one of the most harrowing documents of pain and confusion ever made, and the idea of other artists playing Spence’s intensely personal songs is a bit unnatural. But a mostly well-chosen lineup of sympathetic performers helps, with Tom Waits, Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli, and Diesel Park West turning in strong interpretations. The best contributions come from artists who realize that Spence’s work is as much about atmosphere as words and chords. Robert Plant moans over ghostly vibes on ”Little Hands”; Alejandro Escovedo offers an appropriately bleary ”Diana,” Spence’s darkest song; and Flying Saucer Attack out-space the ultra-spaced-out Spence. Not everyone gets it, though. The Durocs (led by fellow San Fran hippie leftover Ron Nagle) and the Ophelias mistakenly believe that weird songs call for wacky performances, resulting in a sort of contrived lunacy that’s at odds with Spence’s unself-conscious outpourings. And Engine 54 contribute a puzzling ska track that’s unrelated to both Spence and everything else on More Oar. Still, more often than not, More taps into the spirit of Oar — no easy feat.
Compared with Spence’s work, the songs of the late alt-country innovator Gram Parsons are about as hard to cover as ”Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” It makes for risky tribute fare, as Parsons’ tunes too easily take on the personalities of whoever’s performing them. But Grievous Angel plays it straight, with most contributors confident enough to just play the songs, not reinvent them. Skip Beck’s affectless facsimile of country singing on ”Sin City” and Cowboy Junkies’ oomph-less ”Ooh Las Vegas,” but everything else works, especially Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris’ ”Juanita,” the Pretenders and Harris’ ”She,” and Lucinda Williams and David Crosby’s ”Return of the Grievous Angel.” Angel and More don’t improve on Spence and Parsons, but neither will they make you run screaming for the originals; and when it comes to tributes, that’s all too rare an accomplishment. Both: B+