BARRY GIBB & FRIENDS: Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol. I (EMI)
Verdict: Classics with a country twist
Elvis Costello once said a great song should be robust enough to be sung in different styles, whether that’s on an acoustic guitar or with all the bells and whistles of an orchestra.
It’s a theory that clearly strikes a chord with Barry Gibb. ‘We grew up in a different world,’ he says. ‘In those days, there was no such thing as genre.’
Gibb puts his views into practice on new album Greenfields, taking some of the greatest songs he sang with the Bee Gees and re-recording them as big-ticket duets in a country setting. He made the album in Nashville with garlanded producer Dave Cobb, roping in some impressive guests.
Barry Gibb (pictured) says there used to be no such thing as genre, and puts that into practice with his new record made in Nashville, Tennessee
It’s a testimony to the enduring quality of hits that were originally melodramatic pop numbers or high-octane floor-fillers that the project works a treat. It’s not just a matter of adding a few big names and some lap steel guitar either. There are detours into southern pop, country-soul, bluegrass and Americana, too.
The first big release of 2021, the album is also a tribute to Barry’s two younger Bee Gees siblings: the twins Maurice and Robin died in 2003 and 2012 respectively, but they co-wrote many of the tunes here and it’s only fitting that the record is subtitled The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1.
At 74, Barry’s tremulous voice is still in fine fettle — a result, perhaps, of a healthy lifestyle — and the effect he has on his guests is revealing. Some pull out all the stops by wringing every ounce of emotion out of lyrics steeped in melancholy and heartache. Others allow the songs to do the heavy lifting. Both approaches have their benefits.
For a song steeped in melancholy, Barry Gibb was joined by Keith Urban for I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You, a song about the last wishes of a death row prisoner
In the former category comes a grandstanding take on I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You, with Keith Urban. The song, about the last wishes of a prisoner on death row, was originally written with R&B star Percy Sledge in mind, and there’s a powerful country-soul feel to the new interpretation.
Another song originally penned for an American soul legend is also given full throttle. Otis Redding died before he was able to record To Love Somebody in 1967 and the Bee Gees ended up singing it themselves. Here, it’s transformed into a rasping blues belter by Gibb and Jay Buchanan, of the Californian rock band Rival Sons.
At the other extreme, bluegrass and country star Alison Krauss teams up with Barry on a sublime Too Much Heaven, her angelic soprano flowing like honey over a ballad that sounds as if it’s being sung by a falsetto soul act from the 1970s. Dolly Parton, too, shows wonderful restraint on a simple Words.
Elsewhere, Sheryl Crow sings with real feeling on How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, and Jay Buchanan returns — this time with Miranda Lambert — for Jive Talkin’, one of two tracks originally on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Here, it’s slowed down slightly and given a summery, honky-tonk feel.
Miranda Lambert performs on the album for Jive Talkin’, a song with a summery, honky-tonk feel
Familiarity dominates, but there is room for some less celebrated gems. Jason Isbell duets on Words Of A Fool, originally a Barry Gibb solo track, and Olivia Newton-John contributes on the unheralded Rest Your Love On Me. Americana duo Gillian Welch and David Rawlings also appear, adding old-time bluegrass hues on Butterfly.
The most ambitious inclusion is that of 1970’s Lonely Days, a baroque pop number littered with tempo changes that was the Bee Gees’ attempt to compete with the medley on side two of The Beatles’ Abbey Road. Male-female quartet Little Big Town do a decent job with some tricky harmonies but the track interrupts the album’s flow. Still, Greenfields signals a great start to the pop year, not least because it arrives at a point when our spirits certainly need lifting. And, with the likes of Night Fever and More Than A Woman absent, there is plenty of scope for the second volume hinted at in the album title. You Should Be Line Dancing, perhaps?
STEVE EARLE & THE DUKES: J.T (New West)
Verdict: Father’s touching tribute
Steve Earle’s latest album J.T. is a tribute to his son Justin Townes Earle, a singer-songwriter who died in August 2020 after an accidental drug overdose. Out digitally last Monday on what would have been Justin’s 39th birthday, it’s as much a celebration as a farewell. ‘It was the only way I knew to say goodbye,’ says Steve.
Like his father, the late singer — his middle name given to him in honour of singer Townes Van Zandt — was a talented lyricist, and Texan rocker Steve’s road-hardened band The Dukes take ten of Justin’s songs, plus one Steve Earle original, and place them in a rootsy but accomplished setting, with fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore prominent.
Themes of heartbreak and family loom large. Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving is old-school country, and Far Away In Another Town an anguished ballad that finds its main character hitting the road for a place where he can be ‘lonesome on my own’.
It’s not wholly downbeat, though, with Maria an electric rocker and Harlem River Blues leaning towards rockabilly.
This week’s digital release of J.T. will be followed by CD and vinyl versions on March 19, with proceeds going into a trust for the late singer’s daughter Etta.
BIRTHDAY TREAT FOR BOWIE FANS
Two unreleased David Bowie tracks, both covers, are being issued this morning to mark what would have been his 74th birthday. The songs date from the late 1990s and are bolstered by a traditional rock sound that suggests he was eager to move on from 1997’s Earthling, his poorly received drum and bass album.
The first is a showy take on John Lennon’s Mother, recorded in 1997 and 1998 for a tribute LP that was never released. The second track, Bob Dylan’s Tryin’ To Get To Heaven, is more ambitious, with the original’s languid feel transformed by Bowie’s sax and Reeves Gabrels’ bluesy guitar.
Two unreleased David Bowie tracks, both covers, are being released today to mark what would have been his 74th birthday
The songs are out on streaming services and vinyl, with a limited edition 7in single restricted to 8,147 copies in honour of Bowie’s date of birth (8/1/47). One thousand copies on cream-coloured vinyl are available from Bowie’s website and Warner Music’s online Dig! store. The remaining 7in singles are on black vinyl.
And a surprise new Ed Sheeran track, Afterglow, emerged late last month. The singer’s first release since becoming a dad in August, it’s a dreamy acoustic ballad sung with a hint of auto-tune. The single, Ed insists, is a one-off rather than a taster for a new album.