I think that John Denver tended to get sort of an unfair tag of 'hippy country guy' on him when he was alive. Just because he appeared on most of his album covers with a toothy grin and seemed to sing as if he were always happy, the truth is that he wrote some very touching and great songs. Everyone seems to know him for "Thank God I'm A Country Boy" and other tracks, but judging by the songs on this release, perhaps people (including myself) should have taken him a tad more seriously.
Sort of a pet project of Mark Kozelek (Red House Painters), this disc got off the ground this year and has big name artists as well as some lesser-knowns putting together a great batch of tracks in honor of the singer. One of the neat things about the disc as well is that it doesn't delve into the super-popular work of the artist and instead for the most part stick to his more obscure work. A majority of the new interpretations have sort of a melancholy feel, but perhaps it's fitting given Denver's untimely demise a couple years back.
Given Kozelek's attachment to the project, it shouldn't be surprising that he appears three different times (albeit, in three very different ways) on the release. The album opens up with an a capella version of "The Eagle And The Hawk" by Will Oldham in his Bonnie Prince Billy guise. It's short and his voice sounds more fragile than normal, but it's a solid start to the disc. From there, the Innocence Mission does their rendition of "Follow Me" that sounds close to the original, but with Denver replaced by a female. Rachel Haden (formerly of That Dog) turns in an excellent version of "Poems, Prayers, and Promises" before the Red House Painters work an instrumental, fuzzed-out rocking version of "Fly Away." It's one of the more interesting renditions of a song on the album and one of the louder moments (although it's still fairly subdued.
Kozelek shares singing duties with Rachel Goswell on the very next track ("Around and Around") and it makes for a pretty, short track and some nice play between male/female vocals. From there out, the album is sort of hit or miss, although the Sunshine Club turns in a nice version of probably the most well known song on the album in "Annie's Song." The three tracks that close out the disc are some of the strongest, as Tarnation works with Joe Gore on an eerie (even more so given the cause of Denvers death), folk/trip hop version of "Leaving on a Jet Plane" before Low creates an almost funereal "Back Home Again."
Mark Kozelek closes out the release (as Red House Painters, but it's just him and a guitar) on the absolutely stunning "I'm Sorry." It's just an acoustic guitar and vocals, but the lyrical content of the song and the singing by Kozelek turn it into one of those tracks that seems much more substansive. Of course, it's also tracks like that which show that Denver didn't always write the bubbly lyrics he was most commonly known for. Overall, it's a release that does its purpose, which is to introduce a generation who might not have paid attention to the music of John Denver. Although it sags a bit just past the middle point, it's still a solid tribute album and one worth picking up, expecially if you like any of the artists involved.