Album Review: Various Artists — Shine On

One of popular culture’s great tragedies is the absence of Pete Ham. The Welsh singer-songwriter-guitarist was the creative center of gravity in Badfinger; his distinctive voice and superb songwriting were key elements in what made that group’s music so enriching. But the troubled musician’s suicide put an end to any hope of more music from the preternaturally talented artist.

Ham left behind an impressive amount of material, though: Badfinger tracks, outtakes, demos and the link have continued to trickle out over the decades, thanks in no small part to the dedication and hard work of Dan Matovina, who sadly passed away just days ago. Matovina not only wrote the definitive Badfinger bio (Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger) but he also oversaw the estates and music licensing of Pete Ham and Tom Evans.

Of course Dan wasn’t the only ardent Badfinger fan who sought to keep the music of Ham and his band in the public eye and ear. Rich Ulloa’s Y&T Music has compiled a various-artists tribute to Pete Ham. The 2CD set Shine On collects 35 tunes by nearly as many artists, drawing from across Ham’s body of work.

Someone with only a passing familiarity with Badfinger might guess that such a compilation would feature a range of power pop artists; after all, that subgenre is arguably the one most influenced by Badfinger. But as it happens, if there’s a stylistic theme to Shine On, it’s not power pop. Many of the artists featured on the set traffic in what might more accurately be described as Americana. Or at least singer-songwriter pop. One won’t find loads of Rickenbacker jangle and cheery, high-octane power pop in these sides.

Even when the arrangements hew closely to the originals – take The Delevantes’ “Know One Knows” as a handy example – there’s a twangy, subtly countrified vibe to the arrangements. And some of the bigger names associated with the project – Shelby Lynne, for example, who’s here with a reading of “Day After Day” – help underscore that musical angle. Her cover of the classic doesn’t take the song in any substantially different directions, but it has a classic country feel nonetheless.

A few artists with connections to the janglepop scene do weigh in, and the project is better for their participation. Ron Bonfiglio’s take on “Lonely You” is beautiful. Again – and consistent with the character of this set as a whole – he doesn’t reinvent the Pete Ham song; instead he serves up a faithful arrangement and applies a few subtle touches to put his own personal stamp upon the recording. Breezy, mid ‘70s country rock the likes of America, Bellamy Brothers and such seems to be the touchstone for the musical sensibility employed throughout Shine On. Even an unabashed rocker like “Midnight Sun” finds its intensity dialed waaaay down in a treatment by Claudia Hoyser.

And when they deviate from that, the results get a bit weird. Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby cover “Midnight Caller,” but their arrangement is full of Vocoder effects that make it sound like an ELO outtake. Melanie’s cover of “Without You” features lightning acoustic guitar runs and a weedy vocal; it remains an open question whether those characteristics make for a suitable interpretation of the classic.

Easily the best track on Shine On is the one that doesn’t have any twang. Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken hasn’t been heard from as a lead vocalist since his 2009 solo album Late Music; his wonderful reading of Wish You Were Here’s “Dennis” is the undisputed highlight of the 2CD collection. Featuring the multi-instrumental talents of Fernando Perdomo, the song reminds listeners of what’s special about Pete Ham’s lyrics and songwriting, and Diken’s vocal treatment is spot-on.

Taken as a whole, the artists and arrangements featured on Shine On serve to highlight the subtlety, sophistication and refinement of Pete Ham’s artistry. And for that it is to be commended; the album achieves that goal brilliantly. For those who marvel at the power of Pete Ham’s songwriting – showcased in songs like the epic “Timeless,” which closes the set with a top-notch cover by Voice in Fashion – they’ll find only scattered gems on this set. The album rarely rocks out, as it were. But for what it is – and for those whose tastes encompass both Badfinger and 21st century Americana – Shine On is impressive indeed.