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Various Artists, ‘Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne’ – Album Review

'Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne'
Music Road Records

Like that last drink on Friday night, rock tribute records usually sound great in theory and can be fun in the moment, but by the time it’s all over you feel regretful and maybe even a little bit sick. ‘Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne,’ out April 1, is a happily resounding exception to that rule.

A big part of the collection’s success likely rests on the fact that — like the similarly satisfying tribute sets that surfaced for Harry Nilsson and Little Feat’s Lowell George in the ’90s — ‘Looking Into You’ is being issued by an indie, in this case the Texas-based Music Road Records. Unlike the major-curated sets devoted to, say, Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin, this double-disc collection doesn’t derail itself by shoehorning in self-consciously trendy acts; each of the 23 tracks were performed by artists whose work demonstrates a level of kinship with Browne’s pensively tuneful brand of singer/songwriter rock.

That’s at least partly due to the involvement of co-producer Tamara Saviano, whose Grammy-winning work on the 2004 release ‘Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster’ demonstrated an impressive knack for coupling classic songs with the right artists. That flair is in full evidence here — it’s rare to find a double album that manages to hang together as a cohesive listening experience, let alone one that consistently satisfies despite the presence of an occasionally disparate array of artists. Perhaps most impressive of all: Browne’s often downcast catalog can get kind of heavy when taken in large doses, but ‘Looking Into You’ is actually a fair bit of fun.

Naturally, the record leans largely on artists cut from the singer-songwriter cloth — many of them either Browne’s peers (Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, Karla Bonoff, J.D. Souther) or obviously influenced by his work (Lyle Lovett, Venice, Marc Cohn, Shawn Colvin). But while the track listing tends to focus on Browne’s earlier work — only a handful of the songs date from the ’80s or ’90s — it’s a testament to his continued dedication to the craft that, say, 1996′s ‘Barricades of Heaven’ (covered here by Griffin House) sounds perfectly natural alongside Jimmy LaFave’s version of ‘For Everyman.’

If there’s a criticism to be leveled here, it’d be that as empathetic and tasteful as all these recordings are, very few of them really do anything new with the songs; Lyle Lovett covering ‘Rosie,’ for instance, sounds pretty much the way you’d expect. Still, ‘Looking Into You’ does find room for a few curve balls, including Keb’ Mo’s warm take on ‘Rock Me on the Water,’ Lucinda Williams‘ sorrow-soaked ‘The Pretender,’ Colvin’s spared-down and heartbreakingly lovely version of ‘Call It a Loan,’ and Bruce Hornsby’s marvelous, dulcimer-driven cover of ‘I’m Alive.’

Ultimately, ‘Looking Into You’ is probably for Browne fans more than anyone else, and given his shrinking commercial profile over the last 20 years, it’s hard to imagine Music Road making much of a dent on the charts with it. But as a tip of the hat to Browne’s songwriting prowess, it’s long overdue — and as a listening experience, it sets the bar impressively high for tribute albums to follow.

‘Looking Into You’ Track Listing
Don Henley feat. Blind Pilot, ‘These Days’
Bonnie Raitt and David Lindley, ‘Everywhere I Go’
Bob Schneider, ‘Running on Empty’
Indigo Girls, ‘Fountain of Sorrow’
Paul Thorn, ‘Doctor My Eyes’
Jimmy LaFave, ‘For Everyman’
Griffin House, ‘Barricades of Heaven’
Lyle Lovett, ‘Our Lady of the Well’
Ben Harper, ‘Jamaica Say You Will’
Eliza Gilkyson, ‘Before the Deluge’
Venice, ‘For a Dancer’
Kevin Welch, ‘Looking Into You’
Keb’ Mo’, ‘Rock Me on the Water’
Lucinda Williams, ‘The Pretender’
Lyle Lovett, ‘Rosie’
Karla Bonoff, ‘Something Fine’
Marc Cohn feat. Joan As Police Woman, ‘Too Many Angels’
Sean and Sara Watkins, ‘Your Bright Baby Blues’
Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa, ‘Linda Paloma’
Shawn Colvin, ‘Call It a Loan’
Bruce Hornsby, ‘I’m Alive’
Joan Osborne, ‘Late for the Sky’
J.D. Souther, ‘My Opening Farewell’

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