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Star-studded tribute is flawed but has its moments

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Even the best tribute albums typically boast only a handful of worthwhile efforts, as putting one’s stamp on the work of an esteemed artist, while also honoring it, often proves to be too delicate a balance.

With that in mind, a Buddy Holly covers project — timed to coincide with the late legend’s 75th birthday — would figure to be more of a challenge than most.

After all, the bulk of his classics from the 1950s featured simplistic arrangements, and the unadorned recordings allowed Holly’s boyish voice — sometimes quirky, but always full of feeling — to stand out.

On Listen to Me: Buddy Holly (Verve/Forecast), a 16-track collection helmed by veteran producer Peter Asher, a few performers tinker with this formula at their own risk, while more offer essentially by-the-book renderings of Holly hits. Both approaches produce yet more forgettable contributions littering the vast tribute-album wasteland.

Actually, a couple of the submissions too closely border on atrocities to be ignored. Cobra Starship, a band that includes Asher’s daughter, Victoria, turns in an airy, synth-pop dance version of “Peggy Sue” that completely sucks the soul out of Holly’s original. Elsewhere, The Fray plods through “Take Your Time” in a bland, slowed-down manner — and basically butchers it.

Even those who play it straight struggle to leave much of an impression: Ringo Starr‘s “Think It Over” sounds a lot like Holly’s, as well as any number of Starr’s own shuffle-centric tunes, for that matter. While Jeff Lynne deserves credit for his upbeat, one-man-band recording of “Words of Love,” there’s little else notable about it.

Most of the successes here are by the artists who rely on Holly’s basic framework yet expand and even improve upon it. Imelda May sticks to Holly’s rockabilly-esque structure on “I’m Lookin’ for Someone to Love,” but the song soars on the strength of her smoldering pipes. Similarly, Jackson Browne scores with a surprisingly melodic vocal on “True Love Ways,” as the string arrangement of Holly’s version is replaced with a lonesome-sounding pedal steel.

Chris Isaak, ever the longing crooner, proves a natural choice to tackle “Crying Waiting Hoping,” while Lyle Lovett‘s spin on “Well All Right” features a slight crunch of guitar from longtime session man Waddy Wachtel (who is all over this disc), giving it an edgy feel that accentuates the resignation conveyed in Holly’s lyrics. And Natalie Merchant manages a rarity — an ambitious reinvention that works — in turning “Learning the Game” into a weepy piano ballad.

That example aside, maybe even executive producer Asher realized how tough it is to tweak Holly’s catalog for the better; how else to explain the inclusion of Linda Ronstadt’s popular 1976 version of “That’ll Be the Day” — which he produced — instead of an updated crack at it? In any case, by the time the disc concludes with Asher’s buddy Eric Idle, of Monty Python and Rutles fame, goofing his way through a version of “Raining in My Heart” that is more skit that song — it starts out as spoken-word before morphing into an ill-advised comedic bit — Listen to Me: Buddy Holly seems destined to end up like most covers albums.

It contains several keepers, but ultimately falls somewhere between a mixed bag and a jumbled mess.

— By George Henn