Album Assignments: Just Tell Me That You Want Me

When the Fleetwood Mac tribute album Just Tell Me That You Want Me came out almost seven (!) years ago, I saw it as vindicating and validating the value of Stevie Nicks. Of the seventeen songs on this CD, fully ten are Nicks songs, settling any question of whether Stevie was respected by the next generation of bands. (The distribution of the rest is: three Peter Green, two Lindsey Buckingham, one Christine McVie, one Bob Welch.)

Several of those Nicks covers had a beneficial effect on me back then, and listening to the album now, I still find most of them pretty beguiling. Bethany Cosentino’s voice on “Rhiannon” made me dive into the music of Best Coast, who became one of my favorite bands of the last ten years. A friend had already turned me on to Antony and the Johnsons, so Antony’s tender voice on “Landslide” wasn’t a surprise, but it was a delight. Then there’s Marianne Faithfull’s version of “Angel”. Nobody does “burned out and weary” like Faithfull, but that’s not a tone that Nicks ever brought to this song. Faithfull’s cover, slowed down and wistful, replaces the transcendent rock of the Tusk track with a very effective dark nostalgia.

Speaking of darkness, The Kills turn “Dreams” from gauzy recrimination to a sinister and distorted goth threat. By the climax of the song, Alison Mosshart’s voice shreds through any sentimentality the words might imply. Craig Wedren and St. Vincent take “Sisters Of The Moon” in a similar direction, albeit more synthy and less crunchy — less Siouxsie and the Banshees, more Joy Division. The spooky tone fits in more easily with this song, and it’s a brilliant move to put St. Vincent’s vocals on the introspective chorus.

Album cover for Just Tell Me That You Want Me

Some Nicks covers aren’t quite as effective. Beck’s production and musicianship can’t save Karen Elson’s “Gold Dust Woman” from being a pretty pedestrian exercise. Washed Out renders “Straight Back” in a way that really lives up to their name — thick waves of synth-pop and mumbly vocals diluting the power of Nicks’ words, which is a shame because I really love the Mirage original. Gardens & Villa do a little better with another Mirage classic, “Gypsy”, but again it’s a pretty sedate reading, lacking the passion and power that Stevie brings.

My favorite Stevie cover this listen, by far, is Lykke Li’s magnificent, echoing “Silver Springs.” Li sounds like she’s in the middle of a cathedral, and that it still can’t contain her emotions. I love the choices she makes to alter the melody, and the eerie harmonies behind her. As the song builds, it’s just a relentless drumbeat, harsh drone, and Li’s powerful vocals. Goosebumps all the way through.

For all that, though, what really captivated my attention this time around were the non-Stevie covers. Now, they aren’t all home runs — Tame Impala is kind of meh on “That’s All For Everyone”, and an instrumental like “Albatross” is never going to be a standout song for me no matter who’s doing it. Also, credit to MGMT for a) honoring the criminally underappreciated Bob Welch by covering “Future Games” and b) bringing a wildly creative approach to it with a really futuristic sound, robotic vocals and mechanical everything else, but nine minutes is a really long time for such an exercise to last.

On the other hand, The New Pornographers turn Christine McVie’s “Think About Me” into a fantastic burst of joy. The band puts its wonderful vocal blend to grand use here, shuffling between A.C. Newman’s solo vocals and various other harmonic combinations, almost from one line to the next. Crazy synthesizer laser-bursts make a charming substitute for a guitar solo, and sweet ooh-ooh-ohhs carry the song to its conclusion.

Fleetwood Mac’s founder Peter Green hasn’t been forgotten in this tribute. Besides the aforementioned “Albatross”, Trixie Whitley turns in a marvelously soulful “Before The Beginning”, hitting the peaks with hot, bluesy passion. Even better than that, probably my favorite track right now from this album, is Billy Gibbons and Co.’s “Oh Well.”

Now, “Oh Well” is my favorite Peter Green song, and has already been fabulously covered by a variety of artists, including Joe Jackson, Tom Petty, and the Buckingham-era Fleetwood Mac. Billy Gibbons seems like a bit of an odd choice to cover it, given that he’s swampy and the song is spiky, and I didn’t have high hopes when I heard sluggish pace of the first few notes. But damned if Gibbons and Co. don’t pull it off anyway. He takes away the frenetic pace of the original and replaces it with multi-layered guitars oozing funk. What’s neurotic in the original turns hypnotic in this version, and I can’t help moving to it, every time it plays.

In a year when Fleetwood Mac has affirmed the value of Stevie Nicks (by touring under its own name with Nicks included and Buckingham out, shortly after the other four Rumours-era members had recorded a different album and didn’t put the FM name on it) and embraced its past by playing Green and Kirwan songs on tour, this collection feels timely once again. It’s gratifying to see that the music of one of my favorite bands means a lot to many other musicians too, and to have some covers that reinvigorate the originals is pretty great as well.

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