So Real: Songs From Jeff Buckley

Jeff Buckley Jeff Buckley
So Real: Songs from Jeff Buckley

3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

Prior to listening to this CD, I revisited Tim Buckley’s song “Blue Melody” – call it priming the pump. “Blue Melody” is a superlative performance by a talented artist who struggled his entire career to find a style that could match his formidable vocal splendor.

Jeff Buckley’s life had many harsh similarities with that of his father, a man he met only once at the age of 8 and later admitted was a stranger to him. Both died young, Tim at age 28 in 1975 from an overdose; Jeff at age 30 in 1997 when he drowned. Both were blessed with angelic voices with stupefying ranges -- Tim had a 5 octave range; Jeff 3 ½. Tim experimented with mutilating his archangel tone, morphing it into tortured screams and suggestive moans that made him sound more possessed than a compulsive shopper with unlimited credit at Tiffany’s. Jeff also purposely wrecked his voice, screaming like Robert Plant with his vitals caught in a bear trap. But Jeff had one advantage over his father…Tim bounced from folk to rock to jazz to avant garde, his career an artistic attention deficit disorder; Jeff, rumored to be manic depressive, narrowed his sights, and despite releasing only 1 album to his father’s 9, seemed to have a better idea where he wanted his music to take him.

“So Real” wastes no time in showing what made Jeff Buckley a post-mortem musical deity. Braced by a breezing intro and firm drumming by Matt Johnson, Buckley’s wraps a breathy vocal around the first verse of “Last Goodbye.” When he hits the chorus, his voice sails, drops and wails all in one breath with ease. There’s no straining, no forced or fake emoting. Jeff’s voice doesn’t have his father’s deep tone, but his falsetto’s in the same lofty stratosphere as Tim’s and that’s a rare feat. He also has Tim’s tendency to treat words as sounds rather than as lyrics. (Steve Winwood was also a master at this trick, turning Jim Capaldi’s affecting lyrics into a garbled language that sat you up in your chair and made you listen more closely.)

The organ in “Lover You Should’ve Come Over” threatens to turn it into a sea shanty, but when Jeff comes in the arrangement goes folky with a touch of forlorn soul. One thing both Buckley’s could do was create a mood with the swaying rhythm of their voices, and when Jeff’s hurt pours out in a series of soulful moans he sounds as if he’s going through the type of personal cathartic experience we can witness but can never hope to understand.

“Forget Her” is a slow-paced heartbreak. Every breath and note has a baleful nuance. Matt Johnson keeps the atmosphere from sinking completely into suicide-watch mode with a speaker-kicking beat, and Buckley displays a classy touch during his first solo. His second solo is more roughly hewn and amps up the pace -- Johnson hits his kit as if he’s just been jilted, while Buckley, who overdubbed the organ, leans into it Booker T. Style while biting into his vocal with relish (no pun intended).

“Eternal Life (Road Version)” is as glaring a mistake as either Buckley could ever make. Tim recorded “Lorca” and “Starsailor,” two albums of padded cell rambling with puzzling lyrics that made his fans to wonder about his sanity. Jeff follows his father’s crooked road into eternity. Why would a man with such a beautiful voice record a song with screaming, feedback, nasty, vindictive lyrics and drumming that only a methamphetamine user could follow? The only reason is to prove he could rock out. This is eternal torture, the type of mistake that can tarnish a short and brilliant career.

“Dream Brother (Alternate Take),” is a slower-paced, mysterious hybrid of folk and rock that takes full advantage of Jeff’s vocal versatility. The original “Dream Brother,” played more heavily off of its Raga influence, but this version shows Jeff’s back up musicians were good at pockets of interest on their own.

“The Sky Is A Landfill” starts out somber and orderly, then Jeff gets a bug in his fedora about mother earth and politics and you’ll need boots to get through it, because things start getting deep down in the landfill. As the song gains a vicious edge, your brain will get filled up like a garbage dump the day after Christmas as Jeff goes incoherent amidst heavy chording and dirty-bomb drumming. Take this one out to the trash and make sure your downwind when you slam the lid down.

“Everybody Here Wants You” puts Jeff in a rarified soul setting, and man does it work. Drummer Parker Kindred knows how to lay down an R&B pace that bassist Mick Grondahl can lean against with a Larry Graham fatback beat. If Buckley had headed in this direction, he might have had a lot more commercial success than he would have bargained for (although he was as allergic to the idea of being a pop idol as his dad).

With acoustic runs out of Zeppelin III, Jeff gets to set his voice against an open canvas in “So Real.” Recorded live with sparse backing, there are plenty of open spaces in the music for him to hold onto notes, or let out an apocalyptic Robert Plant-sized scream. Yeah, Jeff, you were real alright.

Jeff’s voice is still (for the most part) an amazing and captivating instrument on the live version of “Mojo Pin,” so much so you barely realize it’s just his guts, his throat and a guitar. His guitar playing is a bit brusque at times and he hits a few vocal walls, (once gasping until he’s out of air). Some folks will admire his performance for its raw, exposed emotion. I think I’d rather have my mojo removed with a pin than listen to this again. Another pin-headed choice is “Vancouver, with a poppy intro that gets an injection of sandpaper grit midway through from Michael Tighe’s roughneck guitar. It’s quick, rowdy, and all wrong for Jeff’s fallen angel voice.

Tim Buckley once recorded a playful French ditty called “Moulin Rouge” for his “Starsailor” album (and despite being sung partially in French it was one of the few coherent tracks). Well, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in Jeff’s version of “Je N’en Connais Pas La Fin” It’s either a very unlikely coincidence that Jeff accidentally developed a liking for French cabaret on his own, or more likely he may have listened to his father’s music and developed a love for all things Paree through osmosis. “Je N’en Connais Pas La Fin” is Jeff’s “Moulin Rouge.” It’s just him alone on guitar, painting images of cafes and Edith Piaf.

There couldn’t be a Jeff Buckley anthology without “Grace” the thrashing, percussive title track of the only album released during his lifetime. Awash with strings that lay in perfectly in wait for Jeff’s vocal turns, “Grace” is a whirlwind of singing styles -- wise, angry, troubled, and worried -- just like the man himself.

“Hallelujah” is Jeff Buckley’s “Blue Melody,” a performance so meant for his voice no one else should ever bother to sing it again (especially its frog-voiced author, Leonard Cohen). Jeff lays off utilizing all 3 ½ octaves in his arsenal, relying on raw emotion and the built-in sanctimony of the song itself. Put this side by side with Tim’s “Blue Melody” and you’ll know that despite being strangers there can indeed be a musical bond between a father and son.

A live version of The Smith’s “I Know It’s Over” caps off the CD. Jeff lends his own subdued style to the piece. It’s nice to hear a previously unreleased song from Jeff – he really wasn’t around long enough to leave a massive body of work behind, but this is an oblique, disinteresting piece to begin with. Jeff’s manages to squeeze some life out of the last verse and it’s a brave performance, but its musical cotton candy, sweet and beautiful on the outside, but ultimately airy and empty.

Voices as all consuming as Jeff Buckley’s rarely come along twice in a lifetime, and we were lucky to have heard both Tim and Jeff within 20 years of each other. For that blessing we should say (are you ready?)… “Hallelujah.” Jeff’s overall output may have been microscopic, but his impact was not, and “So Real” shows its quality, not quantity that makes a legend. Enjoy Jeff’s Last Goodbye.



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