Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Boland and T. Rex
Hal Willner was an aggregator whose brainy imagination brought musical ‘what if’s’ to life. Beginning with 1981’s Amarcord Nino Rota up until his death from COVID-19 this April (he was sixty-four), Willner crafted wildly ambitious and messy tributes, both recorded and live, covering everything from Disney songs to the works of Charles Mingus, from pirate ballads to a retreatment of the Harry Smith Anthology. He cast against-type and cross-pollinated his musicians. Think Todd Rundgren belongs on a Monk tribute album, or Sun Ra would sound great recording music from Dumbo? No problem. He made albums with William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, produced the most interesting (though rarely the most commercially successful) albums for artists like Marianne Faithful, Lou Reed, and Lucinda Williams. One of his two Kurt Weill homages, Lost in the Stars, might be the best tribute album ever made. Everyone wanted to work with Willner. Due to his untimely death, the Bolan/T Rex-themed Angelheaded Hipster becomes his final project. There are many things to admire here. It’s fun to hear Peaches take on “Solid Gold, Easy Action”, as well as Guatemala’s Gaby Moreno, and long-absent singers like Nena (of “Luftballoons” fame) and Marc Almond, cult favorites like King Khan, Emily Haines, and Elysian Fields. Yet partly because Bolan was a pop star, the arc seems less exotic. Carla Bley or Henry Threadgill do not appear. As great as Bolan was, he was not exactly Carl Stalling or even Leonard Cohen. The arrangements of his songs are carefully crafted, yet some of Hipster, particularly among the better-known artists, feels like more pedestrian fare. There’s one glaring exception – Nick Cave’s “Cosmic Dancer.” Stripped from its straightforward rock treatment, this reflective outlier from T Rex’s Electric Warrior album stands as a monument to what makes Willner so irreplaceable. From what is largely braggadocio, Willner and Cave craft an elegiac ballad that becomes a wistful look back. “I danced myself right out the tomb/Is it strange to dance so soon?”
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Review by Jeff McCord