Monday, June 08, 2009

Album and DVD Review: Jeff Buckley "Grace Around The World"

When I heard the news about the new Jeff Buckley compilation Grace Around The World, I was skeptical. Grace Around The World is a package of live recordings of the Grace songs on DVD and audio CD. The deluxe edition, which of course is the one I purchased, also comes with a DVD of the Amazing Grace documentary. We have heard live versions of these songs before, in at least two CDs and one DVD of a concert. How much can a Buckley fan take? Did Mary Guibert and the team at Sony find really great, intense, different versions? Is the audio high-quality? These are all questions I had before buying the album/DVD. Here are my answers:

CD Portion

Unfortunately, most of these songs sound pretty much as you'd expect them to. The playing is great on some of them, and Jeff is in fine voice throughout, but Buckley fans have heard these chords, heard these melodies, memorized these lyrics. Of course, each version of a particular song will be slightly different, but not enough to matter.

By far, the best songs on this album are those recorded in Germany. Jeff's guitar tone is especially ethereal and beautiful. He sounds really in-the-moment and focused, and it shows. I don't know if So Real, Mojo Pin and What Will You Say are the only songs from this gig that were recorded, but I think the album would have worked better if there were more songs from this session. Especially unique is the 12-minute version of Mojo Pin. Jeff begins very quietly with a soft, chilling guitar sound and wordless singing. He keeps this up for many minutes, eventually adding some vocals. I've never heard this piece before, and it almost reminds me of "You and I" from the Sketches album. It sounds very Eastern and is kind of spooky. After this beginning, Jeff launches into the Mojo Pin we all know and love. Somehow, the first part of the song makes the actual song even more special and entertaining. Jeff sounds very intense and takes it to another level. This version sounds great even though he doesn't change the song very much, so I consider it a success. What Will You Say features some great guitar, and intense vocals as usual.

Eternal Life and Last Goodbye were recorded at MTV in London, and they're not too different from versions we've already heard. The slide guitar on the latter is perhaps a little more gorgeous, but otherwise it's the same song we all know so well. Eternal Life, on the other hand, is bizarrely dedicated to a pedophile (?) and sounds like a combination of the heavier version and the studio version. I greatly prefer the more intense Mystery White Boy version.

Lover, You Should Have Come Over and Lilac Wine are more intense and a little prettier, respectively, than their studio selves. "Lover" is the version on the Live In Chicago DVD. I'd be more upset about that if the song wasn't so great.

One thing I do not like about this album is the sound quality. Most of the songs sound OK, but some are so soft that you can barely hear them without boosting the volume. I know Jeff had a tendency to sing softly, but this is ridiculous. Especially bad is Hallelujah, which is a solid version once you can actually hear it. These same problems plagued the Mystery White Boy album, and I was hoping this effort would bring us better audio. I was wrong, and I'm not happy about it.

One song that is recorded well is Dream Brother, at the Howlin' Wolf in New Orleans. Jeff's vocals here are high in the mix, so you can hear him just fine. The Eastern influences of this song are displayed a little more, which is wonderful. Even so, it's not that different.

That leaves us with two versions of Grace and a second version of So Real. I really do not know what the point was in adding two more songs to the CD. The first version of Grace, which starts the album and DVD, sounds a lot like other live versions of the song. It's nothing we haven't heard before. Why can't they find a better version of this song? The second So Real is closer to the studio version, and thus not necessary and not special. I like the song, but it's not that great. I wish Jeff had written more lyrics for it. The second version of Grace sounds a lot closer to the studio version than the first version here, and by the time I hear it I start to get Grace fatigue.

The best thing about this album is the band. The guitar playing is incredible, especially in the songs recorded in Germany. Mick Grondahl's bass has more of a presence here, and there are times when his playing is just breathtaking. Matt Johnson proves why he was the best drummer for Jeff, keeping the beat steady and sure. Sometimes the band gets lost beneath Jeff's amazing voice, but we should remember that Jeff put together a really great band. They had a lot of practice together with all the live shows, and you notice it when you hear these songs.

I think I know the problem with this album. Most of the performances come from sessions done for promotional TV shows. I think the point of these performances was to do the song as perfectly as possible, leaving little room for new interpretations. Jeff wasn't in his true element - the live show. Only those who were there know what he was like when the cameras weren't rolling, and maybe that's the point. Maybe you just had to be there. Listening on our stereos, iPods and computers, removed from the live experience, the songs just don't have the same impact once we've heard them a million times.

DVD Portion

The DVD, which seems to be the main part of the package, brings us closer to that elusive live experience, and it helps these versions of the Grace songs immensely. Some are done in TV studios, and others before studio audiences. You can see how intense Jeff was and how much he put into his performance. The audio, thankfully, is a little better than it is on the CD. Still, there's no getting around the fact that we know these songs and we've heard them too many times to count.

In between the songs, you will find snippets of an interview between Jeff and a lady interviewer. It appears to be in someone's apartment (Jeff's?), with Jeff relaxed and insightful. I like how the editors of this project matched the themes of the songs with the themes of the clips. For example, Jeff talks about religion before the song "Hallelujah" is performed. I really enjoyed these clips, because they show how much of a thinker Jeff really was. He had a lot of soul, a lot of ideas, and a lot of love to share. I could have watched many more of these clips. There is also a clip montage of a "day in the life of Jeff Buckley" with Jeff reading his itinerary while images of tour buses and shows flash on the screen.

There are some bonus performances: "Grace" and "So Real" from the last portion of the audio CD, and another version of "Last Goodbye" as well as an instrumental "Vancouver." None of these are essential, although "Vancouver" is a good look at the band jamming.

The DVD also includes a video for "Hallelujah." It's not the studio version of the song, but I believe it's a version used in the extended EPK from a few years back. Interesting, but nothing we fans haven't seen before (at least we haven't seen the whole thing).

There is also a "Star Tours" feature which shows Jeff and the band on their tour bus. This feature is very funny and entertaining, and could have been longer. The last thing on the DVD is an "interview" between Merri Cyr and Jeff on Jeff's tour bus. This clip unsettled me. It feels like something private, something we're not supposed to see. I can't help but think that Jeff would be mortified if it came out when he was alive. Earth to Mary, mother of Jeff: We don't need to see everything. Respect your son's privacy, for crying out loud!

Amazing Grace Documentary

Now this is more like it! Two Jeff Buckley fans (one of them interned for Jeff during his career) sought to make a documentary about Jeff, his music and his music's impact on the world. They got the permission of Mary Guibert and made a splendid documentary that has won awards and been eagerly awaited by all the Buckley fans who were unable to see it at film festivals.

This documentary has been described as a look at his music, not a biography, but it does follow his career progressively. There are interviews with all of Jeff's band members but one, friends of Jeff like Chris Cornell, producers, writers, artists, and even Jeff's mother Mary. There are a few people missing, but perhaps they declined to participate. There are also clips of Jeff talking about his career and music. Some of the footage has been released before, but some seemed new to me.

In between the interview clips are clips of Jeff performing his famous Grace songs. The version of "Lover, You Should Have Come Over" is particularly spectacular. Why couldn't that have been on the other two discs? There are even a few brief clips of Jeff at Sin-e. We even get to hear from Sin-e owner Shane Doyle.

I thought the documentary was very well put-together and even beautiful. It's a great tribute to a wonderful artist. It fills in some of the blanks for me, through both information and visuals. For example, I now know what the Wolf River (the place where Jeff died) looks like. In the end, Jeff has the last word as he sings Grace. This version has been seen on the extended Grace EPK, but we get to see the whole thing here. I got chills just hearing his powerful voice belt out the tune. That's what it's all about.

Final Thoughts:

This package isn't so bad if I think about it as the Amazing Grace documentary plus bonus video clips and a CD of the performances. Honestly, I think I've reached my limit on the Grace material. The next project will have to be very enticing if it includes more than a few songs that album. If Mary and/or Sony cannot or will not find and release some truly rare performances and songs, then I think it's time to put the Jeff Buckley releases to bed. You can only release the same ten songs so many times. I'm glad I bought Grace Around The World for the documentary and the wonderful, haunting version of "Mojo Pin," but the rest did not excite me.

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