Operatic and Romantic with a capital R, the late Jeff Buckley’s extraordinary singing drew on sources as diverse as Robert Plant, Edith Piaf, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Freddie Mercury and Billie Holiday — and, though the New Yorker protested the comparison, even a blind taste test would reveal a noticeable vocal resemblance to his late father, folk-jazz legend Tim Buckley. Jeff was a rare artist for his generation: totally unashamed to draw on his formidable technique and putting no post-modern irony or cool posturing between himself and the deep, vivid emotions he portrays. Some might consider that unhip, others found it refreshingly honest.
Live at Sin-é is a four-song EP recorded at the tiny East Village Irish cafe where the singer-guitarist served a celebrated solo residency through the summer of ’93. After a lot of hype, and even with Buckley’s prodigious vocal chops, the disc is a bit of a letdown. There’s a pretentious take on Piaf’s “Je N’en Connais Pas la Fin” and an interminable ten minutes of Van Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do.” Buckley’s own “Eternal Life” is hopelessly self-indulgent, while “Mojo Pin,” written with erstwhile collaborator Gary Lucas, simply begs to be fleshed out with full-on rock instrumentation.
Buckley did just that on Grace. With an excellent band and appropriately wide-screen production by Andy Wallace, this stunning debut album delivers on the hints and promises of the EP. With his remarkable pipes sounding the charge, Buckley’s old-fashioned troubadour style and spotlessly grunge-free music combines the pastoral stomp of Led Zeppelin with jazzy chord voicings laced with exotic Third Worldisms and English folk cadences. On the quiet side, he covers both Benjamin Britten (an incandescent “Corpus Christi Carol”) and Leonard Cohen (a spine-chilling “Hallelujah”). Unafraid to pull such a rockist move as an archetypal epic title track, Buckley sometimes slips into bombast, but even that is so gloriously over the top that it just becomes part of the act. Things do fall off slightly after the jaw-dropping remake of “Mojo Pin,” “Last Goodbye” and “So Real,” but no matter — this music is amazing.
Buckley drowned in the Mississippi River on May 29, 1997 while in Memphis to record his second album.