BARRY GIBB & FRIENDS
Greenfields: The Bee Gees Songbook Vol. 1 (Universal)
Sentiment is so powerful and so often derided as a legitimate response to an artist or a piece of art, and pretending it doesn’t play a part is just silly. This record, a collection of songs written by the brothers Gibb, with the remaining brother, Barry, joined by a rotating cast of country and country-associated artists, is full of sentiment. And at times sentimentality.
You could argue that is its principal purpose, for no one can get more sentimental about music and musicians than musicians. Which is fine too, to a point.
There is existing good feeling now attached to the Bee Gees. More than enough time has passed for the post-Saturday Night Fever comedown’s turn to ugliness and mockery, and the barren years of the ‘90s, to have passed into distant history. To that you can add an awareness of the sadness that the 74-year-old Sir Barry Alan Crompton Gibb is the remaining brother, having lost the twins he wrote and recorded with, Robin and Maurice, and a long way back, baby brother, Andy.
Put those together with the song book stacked with quality (and some muck) and it doesn’t appear to have been hard to find substantial independent performers alongside a couple of big names to participate in what is an amalgam of a duets album, a reworking of pop songs into a kind of country album, and a tribute/covers album.
Alongside old muckers Dolly Parton (who of course had a huge hit with Gibb’s Islands In The Stream, thankfully not included here) and Olivia Newton-John (who came up as a teenage popstar in Australia at the same time as the Bee Gees), are mainstream country pop stars, Keith Urban, Sheryl Crow and Little Big Town, alternative/crossover figures such as Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile, Miranda Lambert and Alison Krauss, the relatively little-known Jay Buchanan, and modern greats of the fringe, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
What they have offered is a country-leaning record rather than a straight out country album, more inclined to southern blends of soul and rock and a little bit of the church, within which Gibb’s vocal contributions are sometimes on almost equal footing, sometimes in echo or fractions, and occasionally come with a few hints of self-referencing (those breathy sorta-falsetto bits that he has maintained on records since the mid-70s) that might be confused with self-mockery, except that Gibb is not known for humour, let alone any directed at himself.
Urban, sounding a little bit like Andy on I’ve Gotta Get A Message to You, and Little Big Town, tipping towards Sunday school before finding the brass on Lonely Days, play it straight and do no harm. Both Crow and Parton bring pleasant but unremarkable contributions to gentle countrypolitan versions of, respectively, How Can You Mend A Broken Heart and Words. And ONJ lightly brushes Rest Your Love On Me, which she sang with Andy 40 years ago, so that it sounds like something innocuous that might have come off her early ‘70s soft country albums.
Much stronger contributions come from a rather heavenly sounding Alison Krauss on Too Much Heaven (that doesn’t deviate much all from your memory of it), Carlile, who compels Run To Me after Gibb’s more fragile verses, and Isbell making Words Of A Fool sound like one of his country soul ballads on which Gibb appears as a well lived country veteran.
What surprises there are come in things like the unexpected success of Jive Talkin’ (with Buchanan and Lambert vibing off each other) as a semi-sultry bit of southern soul, Buchanan’s touch of Wilson Pickett-ish grittiness in To Love Somebody that pushes the song forward when Gibb has merely held the space, and perhaps most of all, the three-part vocals of Welsh, Rawlings and Gibb on Butterfly, a song written by the brothers in the mid-1960s and here elevated to something wistfully in sight of the Appalachians.
Everyone makes at the very least honourable contributions and respect is paid. We get to hear some hits and obscurities. All of us can feel a little moved and maybe inclined to play those originals again. Sentiment and sentimentality assuaged.
And beyond that? Well, the intentions are fine, the performances mostly are fine, the song selection is fine and the album is … fine. But no more than that.