Tribute CDs always pose a problem. For a remake of a song to be successful, an artist has to interpret it in his own way and at the same time remain faithful to the flavor of the original. But he can't be so faithful that the performance is merely derivative. That's a tough task, particularly when the songs are ingrained in the consciousness of pop culture. Who can compete with Bobby Fuller, Ritchie Valens or even Yo Yo Hashi?
A collection of remakes of Del-Fi's classic and not-so-classic tracks from the 1950s and 1960s, Delphonic Sounds Today! presents a second challenge. Can any of today's pop bands interpret music written 30 or 40 years ago with any sense of authority? Pop music is music of the day, and asking a contemporary band to relate to older music is usually a bad move. Today, however, retro styles are being copped by younger bands, and many not only understand music written more than 30 years ago but clearly have a mystic connection to days gone by. Some even manage to put their own voices and experiences into the remakes.
No one rises to this two-pronged challenge on Today! better than the Wondermints, a loungy pop band that's supporting Brian Wilson on his summer tour. The Wondermints adds new dimensions to Eden Ahbez's "Full Moon" but at the same time keeps Ahbez's attitude in the mix. As recorded by Ahbez, "Full Moon" is a piece of beat poetry beautifully read over a simple impressionistic West Coast jazz background. The Wondermints creates a mid-1960s Los Angeles studio sound with its version here and has added haunting Wizard of Ozish backup vocals. The band builds "Full Moon" into a rich soundscape that burns with a sense of intensity that was missing from the original. In fact, the Wondermints version is so good, it's easy to say it's better than the original. The band doesn't steal the song, but it makes it its own, while not obliterating its source.
Some interpretations completely do away with the tonal qualities and/or pacing of the original, yet pull it off. Elliot Easton adds jazz flavors to the Centurions' surf classic, "Bullwinkle Part II," what with his use of octaves à la Wes Montgomery. Gone is the primitive garage sound of the original, and in its place is hot jazz playing with cool background effects.
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Today! does have its misfires. Brian Jonestown Massacre's "I Fought the Law" is one. The rockabilly flavor that dominated Bobby Fuller's biggest hit (one he didn't write) is gone, replaced by nasty alternative angst. The vocals show no concern for ambiance, nor does the band seem to care about retaining tradition.
So where does that put Delphonic Sounds Today!? Much like the label's earlier compilation concoction, Shots in the Dark, in which different bands brought new viewpoints to Henry Mancini, Today! works some, but not all, of the time. But that some of the time is good enough to merit a strong recommendation. There are solid acts out there learning and building on Del-Fi's vocabulary. They should be heard.
-- Paul J. MacArthur