I've had to make an exception for this one, on two accounts. First, John was a friend of mine, long ago, in my childhood and early adolescence, and then again, late in his life, after we had reconnected; Second, this is a remarkable album, and I generally dislike "tribute" albums. The very notion of trying to create a tribute to John struck me as ambitious at least, if not downright hubris-driven. I was of course right on the first count, but definitely wrong on the second, and the ambition is largely fulfilled here: it is a tribute, and a nice one. The artists involved seem, without exception, to understand what they were undertaking, even if it was a Mission Impossible. Some come close. A few clearly fall far short of the mark, but all do so with love and a genuine understanding, I think, of what this project was about. It's something any of us who ever knew John would have liked to try, but never had the nerve. Thank god some good volk got up the nerve. Peter case is probably the most eerily accurate in his rendering of "When the Catfish Is In Bloom", which has always taken me back to those early days when I was an awestruck teen who would listen to John noodle, compose and play as he and the other older guys sat around on the grassy slope at the edge of the Takoma Park rec center ballfield across the street from my house, at night. This is almost time travel, something John managed to introduce me to, first in theory, and later from beyond the grave with his recordings. Sufjan Stevens seems also to have captured the spirit, if not the precise duplication of notes, on his lovely "Commemorative Transfiguration and Communion at Magruder Park." This actually works very well for me, especially because I was there at Magruder Park on the 4th of July in question, and it has always stood out for me as the definitive Independence Day, even the careening arrival of John and company in his '57 Chevy, nearly taking out the brick wall flanking one side of the entrance, which was the only way one of his caliber should have arrived, and which occasioned much alarm and screaming among the attendees as well as the occupants of his car. Stevens seems to have somehow understood the meaning underlying this work and treated it with the spiritual respect it demands.
Cul de Sac, who actually played with John on an album (the recording of which was clearly traumatic for leader Glen Jones and which strained John's peculiar notion of patience)do an admirable job with "Portland Cement Factory", mainly by cranking up the noise level some, which I believe will gratify John, wherever he may be. Late in the game John was looking for noises - sounds - which helped define the spirit of place in which the music was set (listen to his "City of Refuge" album for the approximation of the B&O railroad snowplow sound of our youth - John's and mine - to get a feel for what this means to his later music).
Nothing here is bad, much of it is quite good, and it is clearly friends and admirers who have done what they felt was appropriate, whether it be attempted note-for-note reproduction (Sligo River Blues) or simply a personal translation (Calexico's turn on "Dance of Death", a piece that deserves a special place in American music outside the soundtrack of "Zabriske Point") and gets to become a standard here. Where John was composing for something he believed to be onerous and evil (the title can be misleading, but the story behind it is abundantly clear), Calexico has taken this personal horror story and turned it into something one can recognize yet listen to without one's teeth being set on edge, which was how John was feeling at the time he laid it down.
I could go on, but there are many excellent reviews here by others equally familiar with John's work, and so I'll leave it at this: I hate tribute albums, but I bought this one, and I love it. I also love the cover art, and feel the title was absolutely inspired. I knew I was going to like this in spite of myself, when at first sighting I felt a lump in my throat. This is a remarkable album and a work of love.