Look up “string tribute” on Amazon and prepare to be met with more than 300 results. From legends like The Beatles and Pink Floyd to contemporary acts like Muse, Smashing Pumpkins, even System Of A Down, few noteworthy (and successful) rock bands haven’t had their music arranged for symphonic performance and recorded in `string tribute’ form. There must be an audience for it, otherwise they wouldn’t keep releasing them, one would imagine. But really, there’s no particular need for that many symphonic cover albums, especially given that bands like Linkin Park and Evanescence each have one of their own. The real question is why it’s necessary to hear your favorite songs in orchestral form. That’s one I have trouble answering.
Then again, sometimes it works, when done elegantly, with great source material, and a heart in the right place. As opposed to the crass, commercial releases clogging up Best Buy, Gordon Withers sought out to do something different with Jawbox On Cello. The project is different for several reasons, the first being that the entire album consists of cello reworkings of Jawbox songs—no timpani, no horns, no violins or triangle—just cello. The second reason is that these are Jawbox songs, their abrasive nature making this a particularly unusual project. And the third reason is that the album is a benefit for Cal Robbins, son of Jawbox’s J. Robbins and Janet Morgan. Cal was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a rare disease that is often fatal and will prevent him from ever being able to walk. Since the news broke, there has been a tremendous outreach from the musical community and the internet community alike, proving the kindness and generosity of people when it counts. Withers recorded an entire album for the sake of helping out, and that it just happens to be a beautiful set of songs makes even more special.
In all honesty, I wasn’t sure what to expect with cello renditions of Jawbox songs. These are, after all, some of my favorite songs of all time translated in a completely different fashion. Nonetheless Withers makes it work. “Static” is elegant and restrained, “Iodine” is achingly gorgeous, and “Reel,” interestingly enough, retains some of the abrasiveness of the original. “Spoiler” is urgent and dense, while “Cut Off” almost rocks as hard as the original. Withers has crafted something interesting and quite lovely with Jawbox On Cello, and unlike that String Tribute to Evanescence, this is worth having, for many, many reasons.
Jawbox – My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents
Christopher O’Riley – Home to Oblivion: An Elliott Smith Tribute
Kronos Quartet – Caravan
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.