It would have been easy to populate a John Prine tribute disc with established peers like John Hiatt, Kris Kristofferson and Bonnie Raitt. It's a more adventurous move to tap younger acts such as Conor Oberst or Deer Tick, but "Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows" proves that Prine's expertly crafted story-songs transcend the generations - as if there were any doubts about this.
The disc starts off memorably with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon creating an inventive version of Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow). His haunting, reverb-drenched arrangement underlines a funereal quality to the song ("an alter boy's been hit by a local commuter.") without drowning its emotions in special effects.
Bookending the album is an equally strong - although far more festive - performance by Those Darlins', whose Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian would work well as a rock club or a luau. In between, the disc comes stocked with Prine tunes, both well-known (Angel From Montgomery done up by the Old Crow Medicine Show) and more obscure (Wedding Day in Funeralville, which gets a rollicking rock rendition by Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band).
It's admirable that the track list here avoids some of Prine's signature songs (there's no Sam Stone or Hello In There here) to explore his rich catalog of tunes. Also, the acts often put their own imprint on the songs rather than just ape Prine. My Morning Jacket puts a Nashville Skyline spin to All The Best while the Drive-by Truckers give Daddy's Little Pumpkin a roadhouse workout. The Avett Brothers offer a suitably spirited take on Spanish Pipedream, although the most radical rendition is Lambchop's spooky reading of Six O'Clock News.
Several musicians do solo version of songs that they perform as duets with Prine on his recent In "Person & On Stage" live album. While both Josh Ritter and Sara Watkins' solo takes on Mexican Home and The Late John Garfield Blues, respectively, are lovely performances, they aren't as strong as the live versions as Prine's own worldly vocals flesh out a richer depth from the tunes. Similarly, the Deer Tick/Liz Isenberg collaboration on Unwed Father lacks Prine's gritty wit (as he shows in his duet with Iris Dement on "In Person").
As with any tribute album endeavors, there will be qualms about the song selections and performances, but "Broken Hearts" successfully provides longtime Prine fans a prime opportunity to indulge in his wealth of wonderful songs (which is particularly nice since he isn't the most prolific record-maker) as well as undoubtedly introducing his work to new listeners through the participation of these younger bands.