This is a huge mega gauntlet review. I wanted to write a review of the first two albums above, kinda comparing them, etc., but then I realized that I had these rather interesting cover albums, and it would be a total shame if I didn’t write about them in some capacity (one of them being decidedly stranger than the other), so I’ve ballooned this up to epic scale. I’ve also kinda assumed that everyone is at least familiar with the more popular song titles.
Up first: Rubber Soul is quickly becoming one of my favorite Beatles albums, partially because of how underrated it is, but more because it is THE bridge between what the Beatles were and what they became, and also because of the amount of creativity and musicianship put into it. First off, to name the tracks that everyone should already know: Drive my Car, Norwegian Wood, Nowhere Man, Michelle (which somehow won the “Song of the Year” grammy for that year, even though there are plenty of songs on this album that are better, and it didn’t even hit number one on the singles charts… granted i don’t know the effect that it had on pop culture, but from a musical standpoint, I don’t get it… not that the Grammys judge anything by musical standards anyway), Girl, I’m Looking Through You, and In my Life. That’s a lot of songs that were major hit singles, although none of them ever hit the number one spot. Not only is that an impressive feat, but this was the second album they released that year, in addition to the movie “Help!”. With the exception of maybe 4 slow to moderately paced songs, all of the tracks are upbeat. All, except maybe one George Harrison-written song are catchy, and all contain at least two-part vocal harmonies, with most of them containing consistent three-part vocals. The tone as a whole, as well as the musicality, is consistent. In addition, this is the first of the albums to begin experimenting with other sounds, and more diverse lyrics. Norwegian Wood, with it’s sitar, and In My Life, with the sped up piano solo in the middle of it, giving it a baroque sound, are prime examples of advancements in both sound and lyrics beyond those of cheeky love songs. The album carries a romantically jaded lyrical tone to it, with songs about manipulation, death threats, and being in relationships you don’t want to be in. All in all, a very pleasurable and underrated album that paved the way to their first real change to the pop music scene, and the record that was voted the greatest album of all time by a crapload of magazines and music stations, (even though I find it to be highly spotty) Revolver.
The album gets four stars, due to the two or three lackluster songs in the bunch. The rest are gold, and work very well together. The songs form a coherent album, not just a collection of tracks that were thrown together to get past a deadline.
The “Let It Be” album is another that’s moving up on my list, and could very well be at the top. It’s at the opposite end of the spectrum entirely in terms of tone and presentation from Rubber Soul. Whereas all of Rubber Soul’s songs are tightly compacted, and cleanly put together, Let It Be plays like the closest thing they have to a concert album, mostly due to the fact that many tracks were live recordings, some from their famous rooftop concert, and others being raw takes from the studio. Wikipedia has a more detailed version of the story, including specifics of how each track was pieced together, but basically the story is that these tracks were going to be for a soundtrack to a documentary film that was being made about the making of a Beatles album called “Get Back”. The band was starting to have their fights though, and the material got shelved in order to put out the Abbey Road album. After they had been broken up for about a year, Phil Spector managed to piece together the audio clips from the various takes, and the album was released. Of particular interest (among the individual song details) is the details of the various guitar solos on the actual track “Let it Be”. I prefer the album version with the 1970 guitar solo over the single version, which is kinda weak as far as the guitar part goes. Anyway, the album is a lot of fun, and it has a very casual mood to it. There are audio clips of the band goofing off in between songs, certain tracks that are kinda “spur of the moment” messing around-type songs that fall apart after 40 seconds or so, but are still fun, and of course the famous closing line, “we’d like to thank you all, and we hope we passed the audition”, or something to that extent. Famous tracks include, “Let It Be” (obviously), “Across the Universe”, “The Long and Winding Road” (the most infamously criticized of the tracks, due to Phil Spector’s inserted overpowering and sappy orchestration), and “Get Back”. Other standout tracks include the band showing off their blues-rock influence with the live “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “One after 909”, and the last released of the McCartney-Lennon dual lead vocal tracks, “Two of Us”. The most interesting thing is how different the band sounds here than on any album between Rubber Soul and this one, with the possible exception of the White Album. Even though Sgt. Pepper is supposed to be fun, and Abbey Road and Revolver have some fun songs, it doesn’t seem like the band is enjoying itself, and that’s what really shows through here. Even though apparently they were at the peak of their fighting, the musicianship seems pure and easily accomplished, rather than worked on and overdubbed and experimented with. It seems spontaneous and lighthearted (with the exception of three tracks), and they again seem like a band that you would like to have playing at a party, rather than one who would rather be perfect and pristine. The other thing of note is that again, like many bands who go through big changes musically, if you play these two albums back to back (you can actually fit them both onto one CD) you wouldn’t realize that they could be the same band, especially considering that they were only four years apart…. just look at Scott Stapp.
“Let It Be” (the album) is an incredibly fun listen, mostly because you can hear the fun that the band (at least by all outward appearances) had while making it, and we’d all rather imagine them that way instead of arguing. The only weak spot is that although I really like “The Long and Winding Road” (and hate the acoustic version on the “Let It Be: Naked” album), it really has no place with the rest of the songs. The orchestration completely separates it from the tone of everything else, especially between the roots-rock of “One After 909”, and the folksy acoustic blues of “For You Blue”. It might have been better suited to end the album, after “Get Back”, especially knowing as Phil Spector did at the time that it was going to be the last Beatles album.
Onto the cover albums.
For the 2001 movie about a mentally handicapped Sean Penn raising his daughter Lucy, (Dakota Fanning), the producers wanted to get the most fitting of soundtrack material. Someone decided to make the movie heavy on the Beatles references, including the fact that Lucy is named after “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, so it was a prerequisite that their songs be included. They had trouble getting the rights to the songs, or at least the original performances of them, so they worked around it by getting a bunch of musicians to play them, with Eddie Vedder, Sarah McLachlan and Sheryl Crow being the highest profile names. The full track list can be found here. The album runs hot and cold, with the first three-fourths being well translated, and the second half going more for mood than preservation of the original intent. In fact, the only miscue before track 13 is “I’m Only Sleeping” by the Vines, and that’s mostly because the song is a weak one to begin with. Maybe the song fit thematically with the movie, but the skip button usually gets pushed when it comes on. The aforementioned three artists do perfectly competent (in Vedder’s case more like near perfect) recreations of the original versions of their respective songs. Rufus Wainwright, Stereophonics, Wallflowers, and Chocolate Genius (presenting a track that’s one of my favorites from the White Album), successfully update the songs with more contemporary instrumentation and vocal styles. Aimee Mann and Sean’s brother Michael blend their voices perfectly on the opener “Two of Us” (what I would consider, along with Rufus’ “Across the Universe” as the two standout tracks). Ben Folds iisn’t given enough to do with “Golden Slumbers” (the original goes on into two other songs, with a drum solo in the middle that he could’ve pulled off well… yes he does play the drums too… and bass… and probably a few other instruments), Ben Harper’s “Strawberry Fields” is light before turning into the noisiest of the tracks, and the Black Crowes’ track is perfectly forgettable. The album turns after track 12, with slow acoustic versions of “We Can Work It Out”, “Help”, and “Nowhere Man” by two people I’ve never heard of and Howie Day. Someone forgot that “Help” was urgent for a reason and that the best part of “Nowhere Man” was that the whole thing was sung in three parts, and not a whiny Bob Dylan impresion. The album finishes off with a simple, solemn, baritone version of “Let it Be” that gets the point and shows the hope-tinged sadness of the original. The worst track is Grandaddy’s “Revolution”, that changes the tune entirely and removes the bluesy synchopation that made both the album and the single version of the original worth listening to, in addition to singing with an apathetic tone instead of one of cynicism.
The I Am Sam Soundtrack is probably the best compliation of Beatles covers available, and I’m sure that there are people out there who like the tracks 13-16 but they aren’t me. Three stars for all of the aforementioned reasons.
In case you couldn’t guess by the above caption, this album is a total wash and the only purpose it serves is for comic relief when telling other people about it, and the fact that anyone would want to make something like it, especially someone like George Martin. For those of you unfamiliar with the man, you can view a detailed biography here.
Basically, he produced every Beatles album from 1962 until 1969 (essentially just leaving off the Phil Spector-produced “Let It Be”), and is oftentimes called “The Fifth Beatle”, although I think that’s kinda lame… just like this album coincidentally. Anyway, this CD came out in 1998, when Martin decided that he wanted to go out on his own terms, with his last work. So of course, you’d think that he would try to get interesting musicians, and probably have the means with which to get them to do it. You would think that, but instead we get people like Goldie Hawn, Robin Williams & Bobby McFerrin, Phil Collins, Celine Dion, and of course Sean Connery and Jim Carrey. Yep. That’s who does the songs. Not only that, but they managed to make some very good songs into mostly terrible songs. Out of that list, you wouldn’t expect that the best one would be from Jim Carrey, but it is. His version of “I am the Walrus” was something that I would play for other people and not tell them who was singing it. Nobody could ever figure it out, because it sounds nothing like Jim Carrey, except for the few ad-libbed lines he threw in, and, in the most knowing line on the album, the part at the end where exclaims, “There! I’ve defiled a timeless piece of art! For my next trick I’ll paint a clown face on the Mona Lisa while using the Shroud of Turin as a dropcloth”. Celine Dion turns a rather bland song (“Here, There, and Everywhere”) into one of her terrible sappy love songs right up there with the Titanic song. Goldie Hawn destroys “A Hard Day’s Night” by making it a lounge ballad. Robin Williams and Bobby McFerrin do a serviceable job with “Come Together”, but it’s completely overshadowed by Jim Carrey pretty much doing the same thing but better. Phil Collins provides a highlight with his full version of “Golden Slumbers” including an extended drum solo, something that Ben Folds should’ve been allowed to do. Sean Connery reads “In My Life” like he wants to be William Shatner, but with a Scottish accent. It’s okay, if you don’t care about the actual tune of the song. Other tracks of note are electric guitarist Jeff Beck playing the melody of “A Day in the Life” note-for-note without adding much else, classical guitarist John Williams outdoing Beck with his acoustic guitar version of “Here Comes the Sun”, and George Martin conducting a new version of the Pepperland Suite from the “Yellow Submarine” movie. Other tracks of ill-repute include Billy Connolly and his Scottish accent portraying a ringmaster for “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, and the biggest travesty of them all, making the decision to can the best part of the second best of the Beatles’ three-part harmony songs, “Because”, in favor of having electric violinist and fad at the time, Vanessa Mae give us her instrumental version. I believe that covers the entirety of the album. It’s a very obscure compilation that not that many people really know about, and it should be kept that way.
This album gets one star due to a few tracks that would be enjoyable to people who’ve never heard the original versions. Also, other tracks are guilty pleasures as you listen and wonder why anyone, especially someone with this much music industry power, would do something like this. Then you realize that in the liner notes he actually explained each decision individually. These explanations are worth about as much to me as the explanation for the movie “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band“, the lowest regarded of anything even vaguely having to do with their music, and an entirely different subject that perhaps one day I’ll tell you all about.