When he released his first record, Jac Holzman was still enrolled at St. John's College in Annapolis. In keeping with that school's Grecophilia, he gave his label a classical name, slightly updated: Elektra. That was 40 years ago, and Holzman is long gone, succeeded in the '70s by David Geffen (also long gone) as his company was absorbed into America's largest recording combine, WEA. (Oddly enough, Ahmet Ertegun, whose Atlantic Records provides the "A" to Elektra's "E," also attended St. John's.) Today, Elektra is just another media conglomerate (its official title is Elektra Entertainment), a medium-size chunk of the mammoth Time-Warner, but with a back-catalogue that includes some of the prickliest characters in folk and rock, from Phil Ochs to Iggy Pop.
Both the prickly and the placid are honored on "Rubaiyat," the 38-track (plus one encore) salute to the label's history coordinated by ex-Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye, the former Elektra A&R man who compiled the groundbreaking garage rock retrospective "Nuggets" for the company in 1972. "Rubaiyat," which will be celebrated with "cool collectible giveaways" at tonight's Jesus Jones show at the 9:30 club, is not especially flattering to Elektra's current lineup -- to hear They Might Be Giants' version of Phil Ochs's "One More Parade" is to know which one is the giant -- but it's certainly presentable, and illuminated by occasional flashes of brilliance.
Elektra was originally a folk label, and many of the songs retooled here are hootenanny chestnuts from the likes of Glenn Yarbrough, Tom Paxton and Judy Collins. Elektra didn't dabble in electricity until the mid-'60s, when it signed Love, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Doors, such a perennial cash cow for the label that it's surprising only one of the band's songs is covered here. (The only Elektra-ites saluted twice are the Eagles, another cash cow, and Carly Simon.) Soon after, another punk-minded A&R man, Danny Fields, brought in the Stooges and the MC5, signings the label execs probably appreciate more in retrospect than they did at the time. (The Stooges lasted at Elektra for only two albums, the MC5 for one.)
Elektra has been a diversified label since then, but it and its sister label, Asylum, had a very specific reputation for most of the '70s: Elektra/Asylum was widely vilified as the home of Southern California wimp-rock -- the Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne and worse -- the music that did as much to guarantee the rise of punk as did English art-rock. This era is underrepresented on "Rubaiyat," as well it should be.
These days, Elektra means neo-folkie (Tracy Chapman, Phoebe Snow), metal (Metallica, Faster Pussycat), adult soul (Anita Baker, Teddy Prendergrass), rap (Shinehead), world beat (Gipsy Kings) and mainstream rock (Georgia Satellites, Havalinas) -- all of which are represented on "Rubaiyat" -- as well as a large stable of post-punks, mostly licensed from British independent labels. These include the Cure, Billy Bragg, the Sugarcubes, the Pixies, Happy Mondays, Ambitious Lovers and the Beautiful South, and seem potentially the album's most important contributors. Punk rockers and their successors are known, after all, for their transgressive cover versions, and a 38-cover album needs a few of those to keep things interesting.
"Rubaiyat" gets a few, but a surprising number of the participants play it straight. Bragg's version of Love's "Seven & Seven Is" is lively enough, but it virtually duplicates the original's arrangement, and other than sounding as if it had been recorded through several layers of Saran-Wrap (by Chicago brute-beat producer Steve Albini), the Pixies' "Born in Chicago" is not far removed from Butterfield's. The Cure's rendition of the Doors' "Hello, I Love You" (shoved two times) is admirably loose, as is the Big F's attempt to match the energy level of the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams," but the only ones in this category who really break free are the Sugarcubes, who rough up Sailcat's tame "Motorcycle Mama" with glee.
Shinehead's rehab of Josh White's "One Meatball" is one of the album's sharpest tracks, Ambitious Lovers take some interesting liberties with Fred Neil's "A Little Bit of Rain," and Faster Pussycat pummels Carly Simon's "You're So Vain." Most of the covers of the folkie stuff, though, are stodgily reverential. Jackson Browne does a very straight version of the Incredible String Band's "The First Girl I Ever Loved," one of the most conventional songs the Incredibles ever recorded (why not turn the Sugarcubes loose on "Witches Hat"?), which is followed by 10,000 Maniacs' very straight version of Browne's "These Days" (no threat to Yo La Tengo's squalling "Somebody's Baby" as the greatest Browne cover ever). The album hits its nadir with another folkie number, Michael Feinstein's snail's-pace lounge-act ooze through Joni Mitchell's tuneful but cloying "Both Sides Now" (whose official Elektra recording, of course, was by Judy Collins).
Elsewhere, it's the bland feting the bland: Howard Jones does David Ackles, Teddy Prendergrass does Bread, and Jevetta Steele does the New Seekers' "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," a song nobody wants to hear again, even played backward from outer space by Metallica. Also innocuous, but classier, are Anita Baker's rendition of Carly Simon's "You Belong to Me" and the Beautiful South's version of Womack & Womack's "Love Wars."
Ultimately, "Rubaiyat" had to turn to the farm team. The two best tracks were contributed by artists who record for Nonesuch, Elektra's classical/ethnic/avant-garde subsidiary. The Kronos Quartet's version of "Marquee Moon" is a simultaneously hilarious and lovely tribute to Television, the best band ever signed to the label, while John Zorn's scorched-earth version of the Stooges' "TV Eye" (with Robert Quine on guitar) is a guaranteed show-stopper. After it burns itself out, the only thing to do is add the Cure's 10-second thrash encore of "Hello, I Love You" and shut the whole thing down.