On New Year’s Eve 1974, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined Fleetwood Mac. This solidified a lineup of musicians that would become one of the most enduring pop ensembles of all time, but that was only one incarnation of Fleetwood Mac. The band had existed since 1967 as a blues-rock outfit fronted by Peter Green, but the group couldn’t hold down a consistent lineup, losing guitarists and songwriters to drugs, legal entanglements, and even religious conversions. Instrumentalists came and went; drummer Mick Fleetwood remained the only constant.
During the early years, the band’s fluctuating membership resulted in an ever-changing sound from album to album. Oft-forgotten (but worthy) LPs like 1970’s Kiln House and 1972’s Bare Trees proved that despite the turmoil, Mick Fleetwood knew how to scout songwriting talent. This culminated with the addition of Buckingham and Nicks, who would lead the band to pop stardom with 1975’s Fleetwood Mac and pop superstardom with 1977’s Rumours.
Rumours was ubiquitous; music pundits loved it and the general public adored it, as the album sold over 40 million copies worldwide — an almost unheard-of number in today’s landscape of MP3s and digital singles. Rarely does a record trigger such consensus. It’s not hard to see why: the songs were addictive (“Don’t Stop”, “Go Your Own Way”), romantic (“Dreams”, “Gold Dust Woman”), and angsty (“The Chain”). Combine brilliant songwriting with emotions that everyone can relate to, and you’ve got a smash hit. But what’s truly poignant about Rumours is how it reflected — with 100% transparency — the situation of its creators. Once a cute singer-songwriter couple, Buckingham and Nicks had broken up, John and Christine McVie were recently divorced, and Mick Fleetwood was in divorce proceedings with his wife, Jenny. Rumours channeled everything tragic about romance.
To mark the 35th anniversary of Rumours, the Hear Music/Concord label rounded up some current artists for Just Tell Me That You Want Me, a Fleetwood Mac tribute album. These 17 tracks span the entirety of the band’s discography, and the artists were given full liberty to rework the songs from the ground up (which is what makes a quality tribute album: why cover a song if you’re not putting your own spin on it?).
Lee Ranaldo and J Mascis open the record with their take on the Peter Green instrumental “Albatross”, which inexplicably hit No. 1 on the UK singles charts in 1969. Phasing and tweaking their guitars as only they know how, Ranaldo and Mascis provide a pleasant intro for what follows: Antony Hegarty’s quivering rendition of Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide.” His fragile vocals are perfect for such a poignant, downbeat song, making for arguably the strongest cover on the album. But after that pleasant start, Just Tell Me That You Want Me falters due to mediocre renditions and some serious song selection issues.
While it can certainly favor the late ‘70s/early ‘80s material, a Fleetwood Mac tribute should fairly represent all of the band’s various songwriters, or at least most of them. Of the 17 tracks on Just Tell Me That You Want Me, ten of them were written by Stevie Nicks, three by Green, and a mere two by Lindsey Buckingham (Christine McVie and Bob Welch each got one). That’s criminal. Sure, the featured artists probably chose the songs, but that doesn’t make it fair. Fleetwood Mac was defined by their tandem songwriting, which this album fails to illustrate. And some of these Nicks covers are just plain bad. Best Coast lazes through “Rhiannon”, Karen Elson boringly replicates “Gold Dust Woman” note-for-note, and Marianne Faithfull delivers a very un-Marianne Faithfull vocal performance on “Angel”. These musicians can do better. Only The Kills and Lykke Li turn in Nicks-worthy efforts. The former breaks “Dreams” down to its sparse essentials (guitar and drums) and vocalist Alison Mosshart handles the melody with elegance and respect. Lykke Li’s shoegazer arrangement on “Silver Springs” actually suits the song better than the original instrumentation.
The success of a tribute album (or a cover song in general) comes down to a pair of questions: are these songs preferable to (or at least as good as) the originals, and can they stand alone as separate versions? No and mostly no, in the case of Just Tell Me That You Want Me. Though there’s a handful of great tracks, the covers here are either too similar (“Gold Dust Woman”), awkward (MGMT’s vocoder butchering of “Future Games”), or flat (“Rhiannon”). But this project was doomed from the beginning. How can a Fleetwood Mac tribute have only two Lindsey Buckingham songs? It’s baffling and unforgivable.
Essential Tracks: “Landslide”, “Dreams”