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Various Artists | Come On Beautiful - The Songs of American Music Club (Big Night)
Just behind the Unplugged workout, the tribute album is another highly questionable piece of modern ephemera; pistols at dawn between sincerity and merchandising. With no doubt the purest of motives- a desire to doff the collective cap to an artist or shine some light under a previously unlifted stone- the end results are so often mixed. Fans are left (inevitably?) underwhelmed, and detatched observers remain nonplussed. Ida open the proceedings here with a beautifully fragile version of What Holds the World Together that perhaps raises the bar a little too high, and their sweet simplicity remains the highlight of this motley record. Like it's supposed to, I suppose, Come On Beautiful reaffirms how great these songs are (duh!), but like someone shooting themselves in the foot by including a cover version that eclipses their own sickly material, the album also makes a solid gold case for how integral Mark Eitzel is to his own songs. Though he can be slotted into some version of the singer-songwriter pigeonhole, Eitzel (and there's a case to be made that this is a tribute to Eitzel rather than AMC) is nothing if not a passionately idiosyncratic performer. But it's fascinating to hear what others do with these songs. M.Ward makes a dobro lullaby out of Fearless, Kurt Wagner brings an unsettling tenderness to the surface of Lambchop's version of Why Won't You Stay? and Chanel #5 becomes a moody quaver at the hands of Calexico. And it's just possible that Steve Wynn's transformation of the lament of Highway 5 into something almost bright and breezy, or Portastatic taking Firefly and swatting it into a knot of bedroom beats, is just enough to make the most devoted fans cross themselves (and in a release limited to 1000, this is 'one for the fans'). Vera Clouzot gets close to the murmured unease of Pale Skinny Girl, Paula Frazer brings her yearning clarity to the stumbling waltz of Hollywood 4-5-92, while Dakota Suite emulate the creeping tone of This Year. It's trite to state that nothing here matches up to the versions you'll already know; like an art school rendition of an old master, these reproductions only hint at the majesty and brilliance of the originals. If Come On Beautiful doesn't have you running back to Everclear or Mercury or California or Engine or San Francisco or United Kingdom (we'll leave out Restless Stranger for now) just to prove that you were right about American Music Club all along then it's achieved nothing. Time for a Best Of... perhaps?

Martin Williams
CWAS #6 - Autumn 2000