Various Artists, “AngelHeaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex”
AngelHeaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex
Hal Willner was the king of the conceptual, self-generated artist compilation often made-up of tracks by disparate songwriters in true tribute to a musician. In his time, Willner—who passed away earlier this year—formed such works in homage to Nino Rota, Walt Disney, Thelonious Monk, Harold Arlen, Charles Mingus, and Kurt Weill, along with producing like-minded live events for the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Allen Ginsberg, among others.
Blame curiosity, adoration, and time spent as SNL’s sketch music writer-producer as the driving force behind his best work, and the desire to see a Brit glam god given his proper due as the reasons behind his latest, AngelHeaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex.
That so much of T. Rex’s pomp-and-circumstantial catalog has a similar (even simple) glitter-boogie chug and a gossamer, quavering vocal quality must have, however, been the greatest challenge to Willner, who was used to tucking into the complexities of a Weill or Mingus. AngelHeaded Hipster, then, required nuance and mood to become the key to essaying Bolan’s work, whether his solo tracks, his hippie-dippy folksy Tyrannosaurus Rex stuff, or his gilded, glamorous T. Rex.
In the cases of Kesha and Nick Cave, a strong start to Wilner’s curated compilation, they follow their own muse in addition to exploding Bolan’s mythology. While Kesha’s stammering “Children of the Revolution” pushes a full-throated, wobbly vocal line that marries Grace Slick to Janis Joplin, Cave goes for a fragile, piano-ballad take on “Cosmic Dancer.”
High warblers such as Devendra Banhart (on the gently aquatic “Scenescof), Gaby Moreno (a quaintly stringed, beat-bongo take of “Beltane Walk”), Metric’s Emily Haines (a discordant chamber quarter version of “Ballrooms of Mars”), and film director John Cameron Mitchell—whose jazzy piano recitation of “Diamond Meadows” sounds like his own Hedwig tunes, obviously inspired by Bolan in the first place—all take a subdued approach, and the material is haunting because of it. Each track draws you in to its somnolent vibe, even if Bolan rocked it in the first place.
Marc Almond’s broken cabaret take on “Teenage Dream” and the welcome return of two favorites, with Victoria Williams & Julian Lennon’s capture of “Pilgrim’s Tale” as a yawning country blues number, also work where quietude reigns. If you’re looking for louder adventure, Todd Rundgren (with pianist Donald Fagen) does a low-talking “Planet Queen,” while King Khan’s “I Love to Boogie” is a mess of sitar-and-brass soul, Peaches goes for sensuality (rather than lewdness) on her tribal-techno “Solid Gold, Easy Action,” and Bowie grand pianist Mike Garson wildly backs Perry Farrell (“Rock On”) and Elysian Fields (“The Street and Babe Shadow”) on a grunge stomper and buzzing futuristic disco, respectively. This lot, quiet or loud, make for an exquisite vision of what T. Rex is, was, and maybe could never be on his own.
After that, things get weird—or rather, they don’t get weird enough. Lucinda Williams and Joan Jett, respectively, on “Life’s a Gas” and “Jeepster” find imaginative sonic ideals for their tracks—heartbroken country, sleek-but-snotty rockabilly—but let down their ends of the vocal bargain by lacking real zeal. U2 and Elton John go a similarly uninteresting and unenergetic route for “Bang a Gong.” Father John Misty gives the grooving “Main Man” an epically orated feel with oddball Philly soul strings. And I’m genuinely not certain what The Virgin Prines’ Gavin Friday’s several offerings are about, but they’re more electro–Leonard Cohen than Bolan.
As with any great compilation, Willner and beyond, the listener must be transported to what made the artist originals vibrant in the first place, while allowing coverers such as these, their torture or their tribute. Dig this, but, find the originals fast.