The subject of musical comebacks came up on the Reader’s Recommend music blog this week, and someone remembered I’d said something nice about Tom Jones’ latest, Praise & Blame, earlier this year. I replied:

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ONE HAS to draw the line somewhere on nostalgia albums and I’m drawing mine,  subjectively, at Praise & Blame. If not there, where?

We’ve had similar albums this year from Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, and Robert Plant (again). Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple/Black Sabbath) reinvents 70s arena rock as Black Country (with Joe Bonamassa and son of a legend Jason Bonham). Los Lobos covered the Grateful Dead, and a Beach Boy did Gershwin.

This seems like becoming a once-in-a-generation thing now that pop is old enough to have generations. It’s Unplugged revisited, only dipping into someone else’s back catalogue this time.

With Unplugged it was Townsend’s Pinball Wizard at The Secret Policeman’s Ball that kicked it all off. With this – what shall we call it? Going Rustic? – we can probably look at Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. And like a hit movie, it spawns years of sequels, prequels and imitators.

Take the Cash series; brilliant covers, opened eyes, expanded possibilities…and the sequels kept coming and coming, even posthumously. Somewhere along the line (which he walks, obviously) it started sounding like Robin Williams singing songs in a Johnny Cash voice. (Remember Elmer Fudd sings Johnny Cash: ”I hear that twain a comin…”. Ooops, sorry about that earworm).

Cash’s project led to Plant and Allison Krauss’s Raising Sand, a good thing, but also to Glen Campbell and Tony Bennett. Nirvana unplugged, another good thing, but so did Duran Duran. And every benefit after Secret Policeman had to come up with a celebrity acoustic bit.

That’s the problem with any pop trend; it’s so commercially driven that any new revenue stream is drunk dry. We’re forced to consume so much of ‘the new thing’ we can’t stomach any more, even the good stuff.

Don’t get me wrong: Parts of the Jones were good, even very good. Plant’s latest is well done. I actually liked the Black Country despite ridiculing the genre. Some swear by the Gabriel (why????), blue-hairs are loading the Collins (look at our Phil playing with actual, original, authentic Motown musicians!) into their Shopriders’ in-dash stereos, and Brian Wilson is a genius again in some quarters.

But the test of a cover/self-cover is whether you would still rate it if you thought it was an original. Feel-good nostalgia brings an audience (which is why so many emerging artists record them) until the novelty wears off, but it needs to be a meaningful reinterpretation to have any artistic merit. Or to be remembered.

Plant and Krauss managed that on Raising Sand, couldn’t on Raising Sand II and aborted the project, and two years later Plant is back, doing similar material, as Band of Joy.

Creative journey? Self-indulgent nostalgia trip? Callous grab for cash/applause?

Hard to tell the comebacks from the throwbacks, innit?

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