Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine

My review was published at Lonesome Road Review.

Various Artists
Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine
Oh Boy Records
4 stars (out of 5)

In a world too full of tribute albums and cover projects, few distinguish themselves, seldom lingering beyond the cycle of stories and reviews encouraged by pressies and ad buys.

There have been memorable tribute projects. However, for every Real and Por Vida, there have been two or three Timelesses, Tammy Wynette…Remembereds, or Skynyrd Frynds.

I’m not sure where Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows will eventually end up, but I suspect it will be closer to Lonesome, On’ry and Mean than I’ve Always Been Crazy. Not only is the artist representation relatively fresh and intriguing—no Sheryl Crow, no Emmylou Harris (as much as I love her), no Kid Rock or even Willie Nelson—but the songs reinterpreted are a pleasing cross-section of prime Prine classics and deep album cuts.

Envisioned by Oh Boy staffers, the album embraces the current slate of youthful (from where I’m sitting) modern folk and Americana festival mainstays performing songs of their choosing and arrangement. Prine’s voice and appreciation for melody are present in every song—no one has turned their song inside-out simply for the sake of originality. Instead, the dozen performers take Prine straight-on, giving the songs and their original singer and writer appropriate consideration.

To be honest, I have only a more-than-passing familiarity with four or five of the artists featured. To me, Conner Oberst, My Morning Jacket, Deer Tick, and Josh Ritter are names skimmed-over in music mags and blogs. Of the artists I was familiar with only the Drive-By Truckers and Sara Watkins could be considered personal favorites.

This distance helped me appreciate Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows. Rather than approaching with a preconceived notion of Rosanne Cash or Jim Lauderdale interpreting “Paradise,” I could encounter each performance and each performer on their represented merits.

On the album’s opener, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) assumes Prine’s voice in so eerie a manner that one could be forgiven for believing Prine is singing “Bruised Oranges (Chain of Sorrow).” While Vernon’s track is entirely satisfying, it is fortunate that none of the other performers sound much like Prine.

Overall, the album is—much like a Prine recording—fairly laid back. The DBTs convincingly kick things up with a modern-sounding, Southern boogie interpretation of “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin.” Conner Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band give it a good try with “Wedding Day in Funeralville.” Unfortunately, their attempt to interpret the Common Sense track as The Band might have fails to be convincing. The Avett Brothers’ take of “Spanish Pipedream” is more successful.

Deer Tick with Liz Isenberg perform “Unwed Fathers” with considerable success. The tracks from Watkins (“The Late John Garfield Blues”), Josh Ritter (“Mexican Home”) and My Morning Jacket (“All the Best”) succeed mostly because the artists recognize that they have to add nothing to Prine’s song but themselves.

The only track that completely fails is also one of the weakest of the Prine catalog, “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian”; the appeal of this one has always escaped me, and Those Darlins fail to reveal the song’s relevance.

Tribute albums—cover projects of any kind—are fickle things. One is never certain who they are intended to attract. Fans of the originals may decry the interpretation of timeless favorites by upstarts. Those more familiar with the interpreters may not feel a necessary connection to the songs.

At best, they provide an opportunity for important songs to be exposed to listeners who may have not yet found the originals in their parent’s vinyl stacks.

Each listener will have to decide for themselves if Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows improves upon the Prine story or merely expands it. For me, I’ll err on the side of the former; overall, these interpretations of songs I’ve heard dozens of times are not only enjoyable, but revealing within themselves of Prine’s ability to capture Truths in deceptively simple ways.

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