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Holly/AP, Guthrie/AP, Wilson/Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Worthy tributes

Music | Three new albums do a better-than-expected job of playing homage

Issue: "Beyond the body count," Nov. 5, 2011

Almost since its inception, the term "tribute album" has been a euphemism for "mess." The idea of various performers paying homage to one of their betters by covering his songs might've looked good on paper, but the reality was often both incongruous and underwhelming.

So it's understandable that consumers might be wary of investigating Rave On Buddy Holly (Hear Music), Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woody Guthrie (429), or Brian Wilson's In the Key of Disney (Disney). It's also likely that once they do they'll be glad they did.

Rave On finds 19 artists marking what would've been Buddy Holly's 75th birthday by reminding the world that there was more to the bespectacled rock 'n' roller than "That'll Be the Day," "Peggy Sue," and "Oh Boy!," his only top 10 hits in the United States.

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Those songs are here (as performed by Modest Mouse, Lou Reed, and She & Him, respectively) as are renditions of Holly's U.K. chart-toppers "Maybe Baby" (Justin Townes Earle) and "Rave On" (Julio Casablancas). But it's the lesser-known Holly tunes from which the prevailing spirit of affectionate iconoclasm really proceeds.

From unabashed loveliness (My Morning Jacket doing "True Love Ways") to unabashed rocking (Paul McCartney tapping his Quarrymen vein on "It's So Easy"), every cut belongs-even Cee Lo Green's "You're So Square (Baby I Don't Care)," which in its straightforward, rockabilly innocence almost makes one forget his well-earned reputation as a notorious dropper of F-bombs.

Woody Guthrie had no use for bombs of any kind. But it isn't Guthrie the archetypal (and socialist-leaning) hobo who emerges from Note of Hope so much as Guthrie the rascally individual.

Having selected or been assigned excerpts of his journals made available by his daughter Nora, not-necessarily-kindred spirits such as the reggae-rooted Michael Franti, the jazz-rooted Kurt Elling, and the theatrically rooted Nellie McKay set about turning prose into verse, then setting the results to music.

So, although the words are for the most part Guthrie's (the album's overseer, the bassist Rob Wasserman, admits Lou Reed took poetic license with "The Debt I Owe"), these songs have never existed before.

And rather than paint a portrait they supply pieces of a puzzle that it's up to the listener to assemble. Guthrie's preference for the "progressive," "union-working" women solicited by Tom Morello in "Ease My Revolutionary Mind" fits the established template. But the incantatory intimacy of Jackson Browne's "You Know the Night" defies expectations-for 15 amazing minutes.

Brian Wilson's tribute to children's films, In the Key of Disney, does not defy expectations. In fact, as the follow-up to his 2010 album of Gershwin songs, it suggests that bathing others' compositions in a California glow is what fans should expect him to do for the rest of his life.

It also suggests that as long as he can relate to the material such excursions will yield modest delights. All the surfer harmonies in California can't dignify "Colors of the Wind" or "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." But the sincerity with which Wilson delivers the Toy Story anthems "You've Got a Friend in Me" and "We Belong Together" could almost make one believe he'll reunite the Beach Boys.

And his "Baby Mine" and "Stay Awake" make more than worthy follow-ups to "I Wanna Pick You Up," a charming father-to-child song he managed to record over 30 years ago in the middle of the first of two lost decades. That he's still around to pick up where he left off may be defiance of expectation enough.

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