The Beatles are undoubtedly the most covered band ever to have graced the planet, so yet another collection of takes on their songs does not exactly do much to stir up too much excitement. However, this album to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Rubber Soul contains a diversity of artists and interpretations as to make it a worthwhile listen for interest value if nothing more.
Upcoming talents such as Sufjan Stevens and Mindy Smith join more established acts like The Fiery Furnaces, Low and Ben Harper to make an eclectic menagerie of sounds which works very well in parts and less so in others.
The original album, released in 1965, is undoubtedly one of the most significant in music history. Apart from the fact that it marked the Fab Four’s departure from the more simplistic pop of previous works to more complex lyrics and arrangements, it was also history-making in being the first album not to carry an artist’s name on the front cover.
This collection, produced by Jim Sampas – no stranger to tribute albums, having worked on an ode to Bruce Springsteen‘s Nebraska a few years back – follows the same track order of the original. Therefore it is Drive My Car which kicks things off, covered by rock chicks The Donnas. The result is pretty much a beefed up replica of the original yet with one major difference – female vocals.
Now, if The Donnas could be accused of sticking to the original format too much the same criticism certainly couldn’t be said of The Fiery Furnaces on Norwegian Wood. If there is one song on the album which is going to outrage the Beatles purists this is it. Sounding weirdly like Grease song Summer Nights in parts, big organ sounds are intermingled with synth, piano and some ‘out-there’ psychedelia. The results are very striking but does it work? In a word – no.
For all the faults of this cover however you have to credit The Fiery Furnaces for trying to put their own stamp on the song. It is virtually impossible to improve on Beatles originals so attempting to put a different slant on a song at least makes you stand up and take notice. Too many tracks here stick too rigidly to the Lennon and McCartney models making you think you might as well just listen to the originals.
Rhett Miller and Ben Kweller are notable culprits on Girl and Wait, while Dar Williams‘ and Mindy Smith’s takes of You Won’t See Me and The Word are well sung but offer little extra apart from an alt-country twang. The same could be said of the Yonder Mountain String Band, although their bango-plucking talents on Think For Yourself do make an impression.
The highlights however are those risk-taking reinventions and no-one does it better than Sufjan Stevens. He somehow manages to turn What Goes On into his own song with the multi-instrumentation we’ve come to expect from him as it sways from the soundtrack of an old England costume drama to aggressive guitars straight from the world of prog. Unlike The Fiery Furnaces’ attempt, this is an experiment with spectacular results.
Nowhere Man is another success. A song perfect for Low and their minimalistic, gentle style, it is beautifully sung by Mimi Parker. Meanwhile, Ben Parker’s reggae interpretation of Michelle and Ben Lee’s sorrowful In My Life both work very well too. And the choice of Cowboy Junkies, with Margo Timmins’ gruff, menacing voice, to do Run For Your Life was inspired.
The jury is out on I’m Looking Through You, as performed by Ted Leo with some very erratic tempo changes and an annoying clicking sound throughout, but If I Needed Someone proves another interesting adaptation. Performed by Nellie McKay in breathy, seductive spoken tones straight from a late-night jazz club, it proves another good reason why this record is more than just another collection of Beatles covers.