Monday, July 2, 2012

Jeff Buckley 2: Grace

He wasn’t easy to label: folk, rock, metal, alternative, jazz? In the era of Hootie and Pearl Jam and Green Day, the only way one might describe Jeff Buckley was “male vocal”, comparable only to someone as singular as Freddie Mercury. And what a voice he had. Not being able to pigeonhole him so easily was a strong sign that this was a talent whose further development would be something to watch.
Grace begins as tentatively as the Sin-é EP, with “Mojo Pin”, expanded here to incorporate drums and multiple guitar parts. The title track is nearly as long but a little more uptempo, supplemented by an Arabic melody and string parts. The last minute or so, where anyone else would have put a guitar solo, is devoted to his own vocal acrobatics, which astound more than grate. “Last Goodbye” would be a wise choice for a single, with an emotion and delivery threatening to make him a heartthrob. His cover of Nina Simone’s version of “Lilac Wine” is soft and seductive, and the dreamy mood is wiped away by “So Real”, a complicated little tune involving odd meters and chordings, with a wonderful mid-song freakout featuring the chainsaw effect of acoustic guitar feedback.
One of the unlikeliest draws of the album is his solo arrangement of John Cale’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, which has certainly made it one of the most-covered songs in TV talent competitions and worse. His performance sounds perfectly live, beginning with a diminished variation on the chorus, before the song falls into place capoed high on the neck. For nearly seven minutes he follows the verses through Biblical and sexual imagery, ending softly and sweetly. A harmonium brings in the masterful “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”, built mostly around a D-Em9 pattern, and vivid in its portrait of a room on a rainy day. The dynamic build in the second pre-chorus and delayed resolution of the final chorus still cause goosebumps. The last “cover” on the album is a gorgeous rendition of “Corpus Christie Carol” as arranged by Benjamin Britten. Delivered in the same style as the other two covers, it has a few embellishments for a gentle recording. “Eternal Life” gets a decent rock backing to improve on the solo EP take; others have called it a Zeppelin homage, which is plausible. The final seconds of debris lead seamlessly into “Dream Brother”, a positively hypnotic finale that just hints at anger towards the father he never knew.
An album like Grace is tough to describe in words; therefore it must be experienced directly by the listener. That’s pretty much what happened, too—it didn't sell that much nationwide at first, but world-of-mouth and in-store play made it a success. At the time, it was truly different, and refreshing, and it will get under your skin.
A decade later, the album was given the deluxe Legacy Edition treatment. The bonus CD sheds a little more light onto the sessions, beginning with “Forget Her”, a highly personal song removed from the album at the last minute. A few alternate takes of “Dream Brother” and “Eternal Life” show how those songs grew, both before and after the album’s release. A handful of covers continue the café vibe from the Sin-é set, capped by the epic 14-minute jam on Alex Chilton’s “Kanga-Roo”. (A stab at “Strawberry Street” with a different rhythm section predating the album sessions was included in some overseas copies; it’s since been added to the streaming version.) The DVD offers his videos, plus a 28-minute documentary expanded from the original EPK. All of which is nice, but it doesn’t trump being able to listen to the original album sequence on a loop, as the last hums of “Dream Brother” become the first strains of “Mojo Pin” all over again, mixing with the ambient sounds of a warm summer night.

Jeff Buckley Grace (1994)—4
2004 Legacy Edition: same as 1994, plus 12 extra tracks and DVD

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