Cripes, quite how do I put this with sufficient diplomacy?
Some of you may have been drawn to this record by their knowledge of Jim James’ main band My Morning Jacket. Some of you, like me, may be interested based on the strength and range of the titles covered by Jim James. For it is an eclectic selection. Broadway to the Beach Boys, Emerson, Lake and Palmer to Sonny and Cher. And, yes, of course some Dylan. Catnip for covers lovers from the mainman in a bonafide cool hipster band.
Realizing it is almost 15 years since I last bought an album by My Morning Jacket, 2003’s It Still Moves, I wonder whether there has been, um, a change of direction in the intervening years. I somehow assumed they had stuck fast in their Skynyrd/Shakey hybrid. Or maybe Jim James – or “Yim Yames”, as I recall with a shudder he briefly rechristened himself a decade ago – keeps this other side for solo stuff like this. I am uncertain whether these interpretations are weird or just wonky, largely played so straight and so simply as to reveal more his weaknesses than his strengths as a singer. Which is a pity, as he has a fine, if limited voice.
This is demonstrated on the opener, the Wilson/Asher Beach Boys composition “I Wasn’t Made For These Times,” song I suspect was more admired than enjoyed by Beach Boys fans. James magnifies the frailty of the lyric with a slight and affecting quaver. He underpins it with a sample lifted from Isaac Hayes’ cover of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” If you know the cheesy strings come from there, it works. Otherwise, less so. A simple piano and double tracked “Baby Don’t Go” begins reassuringly, until the slightness of the tune renders the arrangement simply annoying.
And that’s the rub. Track by track, the uniformity of the whining and pleading in his voice grates, tempting the skip button or, at best, fast-forward. Briefly comes respite with the knowingly gauche “Midnight, Stars and You” and “Love is the Sweetest Thing,” all rehearsal-tape piano and bathtub crooning, but elsewhere I found myself yearning for the originals. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” is a particular stinker, clodhopping drums stomping over what sounds like a very poorly Dwight Yoakam. I really wanted to like ELP’s “Lucky Man,” a song I have never knowingly heard covered. James neatly cracks the Greg Lake echoed and multitracked vocal, but then drowns it in such kitsch as to question quite who the lucky man is. Certainly not me.
The vocals and ukulele-esq guitar on “Blue Skies,” which is at least refreshingly short, suddenly reminded me of who James is channeling here: Tiny Tim. And I cannot believe that was his intention.
‘Tribute to 2’ Track List
1. I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times (The Beach Boys cover)
2. Baby Don’t Go (Sonny & Cher cover)
3. Wild Honey (Diane Izzo cover)
4. Midnight, the Stars and You (Ray Noble & Al Bowlly cover)
5. Crying in the Chapel (The Orioles cover)
6. Funny How Time Slips Away (Willie Nelson cover)
7. Love is the Sweetest Thing (Ray Noble & Al Bowlly cover)
8. I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (Bob Dylan cover)
9. Lucky Man (Emerson, Lake & Palmer cover)
10. The World is Falling Down (Abbey Lincoln cover)
11. Blue Skies (Irving Berlin cover)
You can purchase ‘Tribute to 2’ – should you so choose – at Amazon.