Ahh yes, Glen Campbell. That Glen Campbell.
For those unaware, Glen Campbell was a true giant back in the sixties and seventies. Although his given sphere of musical influence was primarily in the country arena, Campbell was that rare artist whose hits actually gave the rockers of his day – guys like the Beatles and the Stones – a run for their money on the Billboard pop charts.
With a string of mostly Jimmy Webb penned hit singles like “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Gentle On My Mind,” and the great “Wichita Lineman,” Glen Campbell defined crossover before the word even existed, at least in its music industry context. The only guy who really even came close back then was Johnny Cash, with “A Boy Named Sue” and albums like Folsom Prison. Hell, they each even had their own weekly variety shows on network television.
With the “comeback” album Meet Glen Campbell, the Johnny Cash comparison is likewise obvious. On the surface at least, the concept here is in fact strikingly similar to what Cash did with producer Rick Rubin on the brilliantly executed American Recordings series of albums that so remarkably closed out Cash’s career. Here, Campbell offers his takes on the songs of modern artists like Tom Petty, The Replacements, and U2 – much as Cash did on the American series which brought things full circle just before he died.
The similarities however end there. Where Rubin brought in a lot of the same sort of modern rock types that Campbell’s producers Julian Raymond and Howard Willing do here (in this case guys like Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander and Rick Neilsen), the difference is in the delivery.
There is just no escaping the fact that is a much slicker sounding record than Cash’s (comparatively speaking at least) more raw, and stripped down sounding American records were. Things don’t start well here either. Campbell’s take on Travis’ “Sing,” is in fact so heavily arranged with strings and the like that it comes off as almost Chinese restaurant bar karaoke.
Okay, so that’s the bad news.
But let’s put this into perspective. Despite his considerable pedigree as a great -- if largely unrecognized – musician (a guitarist’s guitarist if you will), Campbell’s true stock in trade always was as a pop crossover artist. He was never anywhere near the outlaw that Cash was, nor did he ever pretend to be, despite his undisputed chops as a guitar player. The comparisons are going to be inevitable here of course, but they are just as equally unfair. And once you take those out of the equation, Meet Glen Campbell is actually some damn fine, if admittedly easy listening.
One of the funner moments on this album is Campbell’s take on Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life).” Stripped of it’s political pretensions, Campbell reveals this for the really great little pop tune it actually is, playing it as a nice country shuffle, replete with expertly played banjos and guitars. On John Lennon’s “Grow Old With Me,” Campbell likewise turns a fairly maudlin Lennon song into something downright bouncy.
On Tom Petty’s “Walls,” the strings occasionally threaten to overwhelm the Byrds like twang of the original, but in the end Campbell’s guitar maintains exactly that same twelve string Rickenbacker feel, and ends up saving the day. The only thing missing is Roger McGuinn himself. Campbell’s voice also remains smooth as ever on his version of the Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These.”
The fact is, once you remove all musical prejudices and pre-conceived notions, this is exactly what a Glen Campbell record is supposed to sound like in 2008. And truth be told, the occasionally cheesy sounding string-heavy arrangements fit right in with his legacy as one of that rare breed of artists able to bridge the genre gap.
It’s damn fine listening.