first appeared in The Stranger, January 6, 2000

It All Depends on Who's Listening
by Kathleen Wilson

More so than any other year perhaps, 1999 will be remembered as the year for musical tributes. Tributes to everyone who contributed to the last century, tributes to those recently dead, tributes to the living who'll soon be dead. Mostly I noticed an inordinate amount of tributes to musicians who influenced current musicians, a type of tribute I've been thinking a lot about lately, and I still haven't decided how I feel about it.

Take Mark Lanegan's recent album, I'll Take Care of You, comprised entirely of covers. He's gathered songs by artists and bands that are important to him -- Tim Hardin, Falling James, the Gun Club, Buck Owens -- and put them on record, in his own voice, in his own style. Along the way, he adds a new dimension to the songs that I'm not sure I appreciate. I'm a big fan of Lanegan's vocal abilities -- I find his singing to be evocative and highly stimulating, even if most of the time he stimulates a protracted case of armchair yearning. But with his alternative versions of these fine songs now out there, I find it impossible to separate the two. I hear one, I think about the other.

Which is exactly as it should be, a musician friend argued to me recently. He feels that tribute albums such as Lanegan's are an effective tool for spreading good music that might otherwise go unheard. He used a favorite artist as an example: "If Shane McGowan put out an album of all his favorite Irish songs that inspired him, that would be cool, because you could go back and find the records those songs came from. That's what I do when a favorite writer talks about other writers he likes -- I go buy the books he said inspired him. I would hope for the same thing with Mark Lanegan and his tribute album."

But wait: "Then again, it's also kind of a drag if you want to hear new stuff by an artist, and they put out an album of covers instead. It is kind of a throwaway, if you think about it."

So there you have it. Or don't. Tribute albums: good or bad? I guess it all depends on who's listening.