The Gibb Brothers Songbook Vol 1 review – a missed opportunity
It’s not been tested in a lab, but anecdotal belief holds that sibling harmonies vibrate at particularly sublime frequency. On How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, the illuminating Bee Gees documentary released last month, Noel Gallagher and a Jonas Brother reflect wryly on the vicissitudes of being in a band with your brothers, but also on how uncanny the musical entente can be.
Imagine, then, being Barry Gibb. Thanks to the munificent quirks of the 20th-century music industry, he has long sat atop vast sierras of cash generated by songwriting. The Bee Gees were screaming-meemie famous not once, but twice – first as 60s popstrels and again as disco mavens. No one talked as much about cultural appropriation then, but the Gibbs had an unabashed love of male falsetto vocal groups, soul and R&B, which they put to excellent use.
But Gibb lost his brothers: twins Robin and Maurice, and young Andy. Now 74, Barry Gibb is in an expansionary phase, keen to remind the world of the catalogue. After the doc comes this album of country-inflected duets, which pairs brothers Gibb songs with a range of collaborators. Some, such as Dolly Parton, are former associates. Others, like Olivia Newton-John, are fellow survivors of the 70s/80s cusp.
The country feel here finds Gibb luxuriating in the genre of his childhood. Butterfly is an unreleased song that references the brothers’ Australian neighborhood, Greenfields. It closes the tracklisting, with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings – always classy – providing a relatively rare three-way harmonic episode.
Although outfits such as Little Big Town provide a few more, it’s telling that harmonies are, mostly, not the focus here. Sweet-voiced Robin, and Maurice’s uncanny synchromesh, cannot be replaced. You presume lockdown did not exactly favour the exchange of spittle around one microphone either. The singing, in which Gibb and the other vocalist mostly trade verses, is perfectly serviceable. He has lost little of his etiolated upper register, as the crowds that saw his set at Glastonbury 2017 can attest. (Apparently, a scepticism around cocaine helps.)
But Greenfields is an opportunity missed. It doesn’t lack for big box office – Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert and Sheryl Crow figure – but the whole endeavour is overproduced and under-brave. The glue here is producer Dave Cobb, who contributed to the soundtrack for the Lady Gaga-starring reboot of A Star Is Born (2018); apparently, the film’s Bradley Cooper may play Barry Gibb in a forthcoming biopic.
Cobb’s associates – Jason Isbell, formerly of Drive-By Truckers, who also wrote a song for A Star Is Born; Jay Buchanan, singer in US rock band Rival Sons; and Brandi Carlile – acquit themselves pleasantly enough on a range of still-great Bee Gees songs. One of the more unexpected performances comes from Buchanan, a man most often given to bawling bluesily over heavy guitars. It’s hard to ruin To Love Somebody, but such is Buchanan’s unexpected way around a soul vocal, you do a double take and squint at the credits.
Alison Krauss’s voice is as pure as a mountain stream on Too Much Heaven, but you get the feeling that Gibb, faced with the intoxicating possibilities of an Italian gelateria, would opt for an aerated Mr Whippy. Pulling in lesser-known voices would have been a savvier A&R move too. On his American Recordings, Johnny Cash found all sorts of unlikely songs to sing. Gibb might have trawled the vast reservoir of roots artists more inventively. Even if it was all outsourced through Cobb, Gibb could have had Sturgill Simpson, a country artist both genre-bucking and prolific. (Gibb professes his love of bluegrass; Simpson recently dropped two albums of bluegrass reworkings of his own catalogue.)
If only Greenfields went heavy on the banjo and whooping; there is an airless soft focus here that dovetails logically with the Gibb brand but mislays the Bee Gees’ genre-rifling flexibility and joie de vivre.
The Bee Gees aren’t a legendarily experimental band. But the recent documentary reveals that in 1977, Bee Gees drummer Dennis Bryon had to rush home from the Saturday Night Fever sessions for a family emergency. So the Bee Gees’ engineers physically spliced several feet of tape of his Night Fever drumming into a loop, which in turn formed the basis of Stayin’ Alive. Necessity was the mother of invention then. But with the stakes not particularly high here, Greenfields takes the easy path.