There is an inherent problem with every tribute album -- however successfully the compilers and artists conduct themselves in the service of the tributee -- and that problem is context. In the rush to lionize an artist (and often for no more noble a purpose than the pursuit of a quick buck from completists who will own every scrap of ephemera by their favorite band), many tribute manufacturers never take into account the many complex contextual layers that surround the feted artist. Tracks that betray vastly different evolutionary periods for the object of their affection or were never intended to be presented in the same work are often forced together. Then there is the problem of taking a band that is 20 or 30 years old, yanking it out of its proper place in history, and reintroducing it to an audience that may only be vaguely aware of its existence.
Executive producer Simon Halfon may well have been marginally cognizant of any or all of this when he set about assembling the components for Fire & Skill, a potent examination of the Jam. Halfon was certainly helped by the timelessness of the Jam's material, which has never sounded worn or dated previously, and doesn't here either. Fire & Skill is bookended by the battling Gallagher brothers, with Liam Gallagher and Steve Craddock combining on "Carnation," and Noel Gallagher closing with a muscular take on "To Be Someone." In between, some of the Jam's most high-profile songs are given some fascinating new twists.
There are any number of notable moments on Fire & Skill -- Everything but the Girl's fragile arrangement of "English Rose," Ben Harper's razor-sharp take on "The Modern World," the deconstructionist stance of Garbage on "The Butterfly Collector," and Reef's appropriately heavy "That's Entertainment" are all high points on an already highly placed release. Equally cool are Heavy Stereo's post-pop rendition of "The Gift" and Buffalo Tom's alt-pop conversion of "Going Underground." But fans will queue up around the block for the hidden bonus track from Jam guitarist Paul Weller, who contributes the gently Bowiesque "No One in the World."
The tributes on Fire and Skill are very well-executed and completely acceptable versions of the originals. The one intangible in all of this is the power and impressive scope of the Jam, one of rock and roll's most complete and accomplished power trios, whose barely restrained energy and clipped demeanor were balanced perfectly in the band's writing, recording, and performing. While it's interesting to hear these translations, it's comforting to know that they are merely clever imitations of the bittersweet perfection of the Jam's original compositions. -- Brian Baker