From the artists involved right down to the concept of the album itself, everything about We Are Only Riders, the tribute record for the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce (The Gun Club), is original and full of the singular spirit of the pioneering artist the collection aims to honor. The songs themselves are mostly unfinished and rough Pierce originals, most of them unearthed by his longtime friend and collaborator Cypress Grove, who came across tapes of an early 90′s recording session that the two of them intended to release but never did. The sound quality of those recordings were dreadful, but the songs themselves bristled with enough genuine energy in order to inspire Grove to ask others to record them. And it didn’t take long before high-profile artists quickly lined up to be involved in the project: Nick Cave, Debbie Harry, Lydia Lunch, Mick Harvey, Mark Lanegan, Isobel Campbell, Johnny Dowd (Neon Baptist), Dave Alvin (The Blasters, X), The Sadies, The Raveonettes and David Eugene Edwards (16 Horsepower, Woven Hand) all injected their own hard-earned wisdom into Pierce’s poignant songs, turning this tribute album into more of a celebration of Pierce’s superb songwriting skills and his lingering influence on the musicians he inspired.
The album features many different takes on the three songs unearthed by Grove, with Nick Cave (joined by former Bad Seeds Kid Congo Powers, Mick Harvey and Barry Adamson), David Eugene Edwards and Grove himself all providing their own interpretations of ‘Ramblin Mind.’ Cave’s is clearly the best of the bunch, with his sinister vocals adding to the haunting atmosphere of the song. But the others are also clear realizations of the mood that Pierce must have had in mind, just winding down different roads in order to get there, with Edwards and Grove both delivering countrified takes on the track while still maintaining the song’s ominous essence.
‘Constant Waiting,’ also gets three renditions on the album, with Mark Lanegan, Johnny Dowd and the Sadies all providing radically different but no less affecting versions of the track. Lanegan’s gravelly voice adds a dark flavor to the bouncy, Americana arrangement supporting him, while Dowd aims for a more experimental approach on his electrified, unconventional version. The Sadies also deliver an evocative interpretation, with the most fully realized arrangement of the three and ghostly vocals that only add to anguish of the song’s subject.
The last of the three songs uncovered by Grove is ‘Free To Walk,’ impressively covered here by the Raveonettes, Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan and Nick Cave & Debbie Harry. The Raveonettes version is bathed in guitars, as you would expect, with Sharin Foo’s breathy vocals giving the song a tender heart amidst the distortion. Campbell and Lanegan continue their unexpected but rewarding series of collaborations, delivering a rendition of a song that Campbell became so fond of that she worked it into their live shows. But the standout of the three, and of the whole record for that matter, is the gentle, stirring version from Harry and Cave. The news that these two would be duetting on a song was enough to give this album plenty of press prior to its release, and the hype is certainly justified as the duo deliver an impassioned, moving take on Pierce’s lighthearted love song.
The other songs featured on this collection (other than the two boisterous but mostly forgettable contributions from Crippled Black Phoenix) are mostly tracks that were submitted once word of this project got out, with Pierce’s old friend Phast Phreddie Patterson providing Grove with home recordings of two Pierce originals that pre-date the Gun Club. ‘My Cadillac’ is covered a bit too effusively by Lydia Lunch, while she fares a bit better on the more subdued ‘St. Marks Place.’ Grove also obtained copies of two songs that were recorded around the time of the Ramblin’ Jeffrey Lee sessions, one of which is a spirited alternate version of ‘Lucky Jim’ that features Debbie Harry on vocals and Nick Cave on piano over a minute and a half of Pierce’s original recording (the tape unfortunately cut-out at that point) that was pieced together into a full four minute track by Grove. ‘The Snow Country’ features drums and bass from those original tapes, conscientiously paired with Mick Harvey singing a batch of Pierce’s unused lyrics that Grove obtained. It’s one last musical statement from beyond from a truly singular artist who, as this stellar tribute album attests to, still continues to influence the direction of modern music.