Graded on a Curve: Broken Hearts &
Dirty Windows:
Songs of John Prine

With a high-quality body of work spanning five decades, few musicians are more deserving of a tribute album than John Prine, and that’s just what he got back in 2010; Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine rounded up a dozen admirers from a younger generation to a surprisingly consistent result. Prine and the disc’s participants have surely added to their fanbases since then, so giving the collection a reissue on vinyl makes sense. It’s out July 28 via Prine’s own Oh Boy Records.

The quality of tribute albums, both individually and as a towering stack, varies wildly. The safest bets are the doffs of the lid to singer-songwriters, particularly those that’ve been underappreciated in their careers, mainly because the source material hasn’t become burned into the collective synapses and is ripe for reinterpretation, either subtle or bold.

John Prine’s success is undeniable, foremost artistically but also commercially, as over a dozen full-length releases comprise his discography. One doesn’t amass that many recordings if nobody’s buying. And yet fans will likely agree that he’s never sold as many records as he should’ve. No doubt a sizeable percentage of his sales has come as gifts from fans to novices, the gesture forming a continuing cycle from his 1971 self-titled debut.

Tributes to oversaturated stars too often falter into self-congratulatory, sanctimonious, or just shallow affairs, but when the subject is someone read about, recognized from the store racks, or perhaps heard only through a song or two on a mixtape or playlist, the sense of discovery can range from pleasant to striking.

Certainly, quite a few copies of Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows will be purchased based on the individual reputations of the contributors, and those deeply enamored of Bon Iver should be well pleased by Justin Vernon’s interpretation of “Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow).” Those curious enough to seek out Prine’s ’78 LP Bruised Orange will not only soak up the terrific original, but will glean the simultaneously reverent and individualized nature of Vernon’s take, which along with his brief but effusive liner text, gets the album off to a fine start.

Others below are not nearly as attentive to the structure of the sources, but Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band hit the middle ground running. Prine’s “Wedding Day in Funeralville” (found on ’75’s Common Sense) is halfway between honky-tonk and a country-rock bounce, but Oberst and crew considerably toughen it up. In the end, the root is still recognizable, and that’s cool.

“All the Best” comes from Prine’s The Missing Years, which won a Grammy in ’92 for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Here, My Morning Jacket countryfies the tune to satisfying if not transcendent effect that’s a bit reminiscent of Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. “Mexican Home” first appeared on Prine’s third album, ’73’s Sweet Revenge, in a full band arrangement complete with backing singers. Armed only with an acoustic, Josh Ritter remodels it into a slice of introspective coffeehouse folk bringing early Townes Van Zandt to mind.

Prine is such a consistent performer that nothing on this LP can be said to surpass his inspiration, but Lambchop’s version of “Six O’clock News” (from John Prine) comes close. Adapting the song to their later-period smaller ensemble country-funk sound proves a snug fit, with Kurt Wagner drawing “come on, baby, spend the night with me” like he’s the Mack of Nashville. It’s followed by Justin Townes Earle’s sturdy adaptation of “Far from Me” (also from Prine’s debut), the overall mood landing nearer to Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows’ Americana norm.

The Avett Brothers’ “Spanish Pipedream” (again, from John Prine) deeply embodies that standard, embracing the original’s downhome aura like a long-lost lover found. I would’ve preferred a little restraint, but the whole isn’t hard to swallow. In “Angel from Montgomery,” Old Crow Medicine Show identify the touches of Dylan in the original (once more, from Prine’s debut, though the credits sensibly direct listeners to his Oh Boy material), adjust it to something resembling The Band, and everything turns out alright.

Sara Watkins’ “The Late John Garfield Blues” (from ’72’s Diamonds in the Rough) excels through the beauty of her voice and fiddle, in the process connecting a bit like a new-grass Freakwater. Unsurprisingly, Drive-By Truckers deliver an aggressive take of “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin” (from The Missing Years); as the bluesy fingerpicking of the original serves as a template for some slide-based bar rocking, this works out fine.

Deer Tick are arguably as close as the record gets to a punk contributor, but “Unwed Fathers,” featuring duet vocals with Liz Isenberg, underscores knowledge and respect for the original (from ’89’s Aimless Love). This is true for the whole of the album; scads of tribs wield a late-sequenced piss-take track, but that sorta action would be highly inappropriate here.

But Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows does save its most unserious selection for last, as Those Darlins seize the humor of “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian” (from ’86’s German Afternoons) and turn it into a surfed-up island stomp. From top to bottom, the superior versions of these songs are found on Prine’s albums, but for a tribute LP to hit a dozen cuts with no duds is rare, and it’s a main reason behind this reissue.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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