No list of things we don’t miss from the ’90s — scrunchies, Starter jackets, Discmans, Earthlink, talking to the hand — would be complete without the inclusion of the tribute album, a fad that seemed to die out by the end of the decade, with occasional flare-ups since. For every inspired concept that had alt rockers like Sonic Youth covering the Carpenters, there were a dozen bloated homages that had superstars commissioning all-star portraits of themselves, like 1991’s mostly useless “Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin.” It’s ironic these salutation sets never made it as a trend into the streaming age; if ever a format was made for cherry-picking, it’s one that assumes a consumer who wants Kate Bush’s take on “Rocket Man” also hankers to have Phil Collins burn down a mission or hear the ’Nam-themed “Daniel” assigned to Wilson Phillips.
But the tribute album, like the bitch, is back, at least long enough for John and Taupin to take a double shot at it in the simultaneously released “Revamp,” a pop album, and “Restoration,” a country set. (The un-ecumenical separation is reasonable: The last time there was an E.J. salute record — just four years ago, as a bonus disc on a deluxe anniversary reissue of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” — you had country’s Band Perry sitting uncomfortably alongside the avant-gay John Grant.) The new Top 40-skewing edition was assembled by Elton, while his longtime lyricist, Taupin, handled the companion piece that emphasizes the tumbleweed connection. “Revamp” and “Restoration” both improve on “Two Rooms” as treatments of the duo’s great Anglo-American songbook, though only one bucks the odds to make for a consistent listen all the way through. Spoiler alert: It’s the one curated by the Brown Dirt Cowboy that at least flirts with the fantastic.
There have been some incredibly soulful Elton covers, from Aretha Franklin doing the then-unknown singer’s “Border Song” in 1970 to, in recent years, Bettye LaVette’s heart-rending “Talking Old Soldiers” and a Sara Bareilles version of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” that induced chills the original never did. You might wish Elton would lean in this emotive a direction in assembling such a record — or that, conversely, he’d indulge the side that scours record shops for edgy freshman acts and goes on Beats 1 to tout performers even the critics haven’t heard of. But the list of predictably commercial names that fills out “Revamp” sits at the intersection of tasteful and cash-grabby: Ed Sheeran (reprising the arrangement of “Candle in the Wind” he did on the “Yellow Brick” reissue), the Killers (Brandon Flowers doing a dead-on impression in “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”), Alessia Cara (faring melismatically OK somewhere amid an overproduced “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”). Want deep tracks or post-1983 cuts? Forget it — this feels like an album designed more to move tickets for his farewell tour, even if the first 60 shows did sell out on day one.
You do get some selections on “Revamp” where the guests assert their personalities in interesting enough ways. Sam Smith reclaims “Daniel” from Wilson Phillips and, in making Elton’s old falsetto notes sound like Johnny Cash’s, turns it into something flutteringly and beautifully his. Mary J. Blige strips all the drama out of “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” — along with the melody as we knew it — and transforms it into a moody groove song. On “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” Q-Tip and Demi Lovato keep the melody but transpose it into a weirdly different key to go with the vaguely house rhythm. John and Taupin have said they tried to get a rapper, like Ice-T, to do “Bennie and the Jets” on the ’91 compilation, and here they land one, as Future joins Pink in putting on hip-hop mohair. It wasn’t worth the wait, but it’s a curio.
The least successful interpretation is Lady Gaga’s “Your Song.” The piano-chanteuse-come-lately seems like the perfect fit for the ballad, but there’s something oddly stiff about Gaga’s exaggerated musical-theater diction on the track, as if she were Patti LuPone trying to sing a rock song for the first time. On the other hand, some of the less promising hookups quietly pay off. Mumford & Sons wouldn’t appear to be a great choice for “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” but the band gets at the sneering disdain for an ex embedded in the post-breakup anthem. And the prize for the most sensitive and stripped-back approach goes to — I know, I can’t believe I’m saying this either — Coldplay. “We All Fall in Love Sometimes,” the only non-hit revived for “Revamp,” is essentially Chris Martin with a piano and a few eventual strings. He gently kills it; now, if we could only get him to let Taupin write all his lyrics forever.
“Restoration” is not nearly so hit-and-miss as “Revamp.” The Nashville-based disc is not just more focused on a style and a subset of artists but leans toward the more expressly singer-songwriter-type material John was recording in the early ’70s, under the influence of his roots-loving collaborator. It makes a case that with some of those first albums, the performer played a role in inventing country rock as we know it right alongside Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris and Don Henley, the latter two of whom show up here to further exchange debts.
Henley duets with Vince Gill on the latter-day “Sacrifice,” making a fresh Eagles album sound like a very good idea. Dolly Parton and Rhonda Vincent, going full bluegrass on “Please,” also should have pardnered up sooner. Little Big Town makes for a mostly a cappella, spacey Pentatonix on “Rocket Man.” Kacey Musgraves has no problem finding the sweet nostalgia in “Roy Rogers”; Lee Ann Womack is more than good enough for the sass of “Honky Cat”; and artists as old as Willie Nelson and new as Maren Morris and Brothers Osborne take the album right to Elton’s pre-glam pilot light. The outlier is Miley Cyrus’ jaunty “The Bitch Is Back”; it’s outclassed here, but handing the tune’s guitar riff over to a fiddler has the fun effect of making it sound like a tribute to early Shania.
The most serious keepers: Miranda Lambert milks the false Confederate bravado of “My Father’s Gun” for wonderfully feisty tragedy. Another duet team of dreams, Rosanne Cash and Harris, tackle “This Train Don’t Stop,” one of Taupin’s saddest post-2000 lyrics, a “Doctor My Eyes” for our time. Sad songs do say so much — as Dierks Bentley gets to say — and these Tennessee-and-Westerners find the tears that have long been obscured by the baubles. Nothing against Las Vegas Elton, but with “Restoration,” it’s a treat to get reacquainted with Las Cruces Elton.
“Revamp: Reimagining the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin”
“Restoration: Reimagining the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin”
(Universal Music Group Nashville)