Under the Influence – ….with very special guests

Within the last twelve months, there have been a spade of legendary female icons reappearing on the music scene and releasing albums with the assistance of their popular/influential fans. Beginning with the Grammy Award winning Van Lear Rose by Loretta Lynn (produced by Jack White), we have also seen Nancy Sinatra’s self-titled album (featuring Morrissey and released on his label, Sanctuary), and Marianne Faithful’s excellent Before the Poison (written with and featuring Nick Cave and PJ Harvey) arrive to . Today, we are going to look at this mini-trend and look at
Are these albums a genuine appreciation from famous star-struck fans? Or is it just another marketing ploy?

Popular artists using their (or more accurately, their labels) cache to reignite interest in a sagging career isn’t new. Elton John and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin helped breath new life in Neil Sedaka’s career in the mid-70’s. Repeat offender Morrissey put UK pop star Sadie Shaw back on the charts in 1985 with a remake of the Smiths “Hand in Glove,” complete with Marr and company in tow. In the same vein, Roy Orbison had his “Black and White” special, which featured him on stage performing his hits alongside Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen, among others.

It is easy to understand why a popular artist would be willing to make some time and work with one of their idols. If it wasn’t for artists like Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, and their ilk, music as we know it would be radically different. And their input is akin to us trying to turn our friends on to the music we love. No harm, no foul, right?

Frank Sinatra’s Duets became the mold that many labels have since followed with. Singing his classic songs with popular singers of the day (most of whom recorded their tracks separately from Frank), Duets was a smash and spawned a sequel, Duets II. Although it didn’t feature any new material, the overwhelming success showed label heads an avenue now open to them with regards to expensive acts that were treading water.

The Grammy’s play a crucial role in this whole enterprise. The Grammy’s are a lot things, but hip isn’t one of them. These are the same awards ceremony that famously gave Jethro Tull the Best Hard Rock award in 1988. These albums are an opportunity for the staid, out of touch committee to appear hip while concurrently appealing to their older demographic. So albums like Duets sweep the awards and make a killing on the post-awards sales. It’s a win-win situation. Ray Charles, a man who has only won 2 Grammy’s in his own lifetime, won 11 this year for his posthumous duets-style album Genius Loves Company. To be fair, his passing and the overwhelming positive press of the move Ray certainly played a part, but this album was rumored to be a Grammy favorite in the early summer of ’05, months before its release.

More where to follow, more recently Santana’s Supernatural (another Grammy success), Run DMC’s Crown Royal, and Iggy Pop’s Skull Ring. It was a savvy business move from the labels, as it not only generated sales but also caused a spark in the artists back catalogue, where the real money resides (especially in Sinatra and Santana’s case).

An intriguing interpretation is Dave Grohl’s Probot album. Writing and performing all of the music, he asked his favorite singers to guest on a track, to which he molded the songs to that singer’s classic material. Featuring a collection a well known icons (Lemmy and Max Cavalera) influential blasts from the past (Kronos and Kurt Brecht), the album was favorably received in the metal community.

After languishing as a relevant artist and leaving his label (for which his battles with are famous), Young was resurrecting his October Rust-era sound. Their cover of “Rockin’ in the Free World” is one of the best live performances I have ever seen on television. A more direct example was when Pearl Jam worked with Neil Young on his Mirror Ball album (as his backing band) and the corresponding Merkinball E.P. (with Eddie Vedder on vocals and Neil Young on guitar)

Recently, Connor Oberst from Bright Eyes has announced that he will be producing the next album by Emmylou Harris, who appeared on his last album I’m Wide Awake, it’s Morning. As just about any argument regarding music relevancy (the only true topic worth arguing in music), only time will tell where these albums will stand. The 20/20 vision that hindsight imparts to us tell us where these albums true intentions lie. Van Lear Rose and Before the Poison (and Supernatural for that matter) are considered definitive albums for the respective artists. Is that to say it is only a board meeting that put Sum 41 in the studio with Iggy Pop? No. They are probably big fans of his work, but it seems the best of these comeback albums are the once instigated by the fans, and not by one of the CEO of the 7 major music labels.

Let me know what you think? Who do you think deserves the update treatment? Which albums seem genuine to you, which seem shameless marketing? I am just full of shite? Until next time.