The precarious art of the tribute album is one that few have been able to accomplish with any sort of grace. A quick thumbing through the racks of your local CD store reveals any number of embarrassing attempts of string quartets paying symphonic lip service to second-rate acts like A Perfect Circle or Hoobastank. For any purist, it ranks only slightly higher than the likes of a Guns N’ Roses cover band in a local sports bar.
In the case of solo pianist Christopher O’Riley, however, a notable exception must be made. Since the release of 2003’s True Love Waits: O’Riley Plays Radiohead that featured ivory-keyed interpretations of a selection of the seminal band’s repertoire, O’Riley has managed to comfortably sit at his piano bench even against the rigid scrutiny of die-hard fans. Proving himself capable of capturing the band’s brooding deep and exultant highs, often layered into the same track, O’Riley transcribed another batch of Radiohead’s best for a follow-up two years later. He then dived into the works of the late Elliott Smith for a tribute in ’06, and, most recently, has sent up a nod to yet another cult icon on Second Grace: The Music of Nick Drake.
That the ’70s folk singer/songwriter tickled O’Riley’s ear is no surprise given his posthumous resurgence into the mainstream in recent years. Not only that, but it seems that Drake’s songs are already ripe for classic translation given their orchestral underpinnings, especially on his first two albums Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter. But even the homespun Pink Moon, which represented the heartbreaking apex of his short career, contains such rich melody that it almost seems to cater to more lavish renditions.
As with O’Riley’s previous records, though, the soloist was up against one of the most fragile (although agile) vocalists of our time. And the responsibility to faithfully channel Drake’s voice through the keys of his Steinway grand required a deliberate stroke of genius. O’Riley’s ability to deliver on that duty as much as he has on Second Grace‘s 14 tracks is to be commended. While the album begins with a rather straight-forward version of “Rider on the Wheel,” tracks like “Parasite” and “River Man” best portray the maestro’s intuitive ability to retain the songs’ inherent beauty while illuminating easily overlooked musical phrases.
Second Grace certainly has its nod-off moments—they would require no more than a dark highway and a nice seat warmer to have you head first into a bridge embankment—such as mid-album tracks “Joey” and “Northern Sky,” and O’Riley’s choppy take on “Pink Moon” that too quickly steps over the chorus’ decrescendo leaves something to be wished for. But that is amply made up for by a more than seven-minute version of “Three Hours”—with a frustrated dissonance that perfectly captures the song’s epic quality — and the sweet farewell of “From the Morning” serving as the album’s closer. Whether or not O’Riley can steam ahead much longer off the sweat of other musician’s talent is yet to be seen, but for now, it’s a welcome relief to hear such carefully stripped depictions that reinvent and invigorate old favorites.
Nick Drake – Way to Blue
Christopher O’Riley – Home to Oblivion: An Elliott Smith Tribute
Brad Mehldau – The Art of the Trio, Vol. 3