Thursday, July 30, 2020

VA - This Bird Has Flown; A 40th An. Tr. To The Beatles' Rubber Soul

Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine 

There have been countless tribute albums, but relatively few have been an album-length salute to a proper album. Most notably there was NME's 1988 Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father, which had a nice sense of humor and adventure, featuring such excellent pairings as Sonic Youth and "Within You, Without You," Billy Bragg and "She's Leaving Home," and the Fall taking on "A Day In the Life." Seventeen years later, there's Razor & Tie's This Bird Has Flown: A 40th Anniversary Tribute to the Beatles' Rubber Soul, which rounds up 14 adult-alternative and indie rock artists to do a track by track cover of another classic Beatles album. While there are no superstars here, the lineup is rather impressive: adult-alternative mainstays like Ben Harper and Cowboy Junkies are balanced by up-and-comers like Mindy Smith and Nellie McKay, plus indie cult favorites the Fiery Furnaces, Low, Ted Leo and 2005's golden boy Sufjan Stevens. As good as this lineup is, This Bird Has Flown suffers slightly from a sense of predictability, since every artist interprets their chosen selection in exactly the way you'd imagine it, so even if these covers aren't strictly faithful to the Beatles's originals, they do sound familiar. For instance, the Donnas do a straight-ahead, cleanly rocking version of "Drive My Car," Ben Harper reinterprets "Michelle" as an insipid reggae number, Dar Williams does a nice songwriter-y version of "You Won't See Me," Low's "Nowhere Man" is endearingly quiet, Ben Lee takes "In My Life" in a lazily introspective direction, the Yonder Mountain String Band does a neon-old timey version of "Think for Yourself" that's spiked with a fuzz bass while Mindy Smith does a bright, earnest take on "The Word" and the Cowboy Junkies turns "Run for Your Life" into a sultry, late-night groove that's undercut somewhat by silly call-and-response vocals and a creeping resemblance to the work of Alannah Myles. The most memorable cuts here are the ones that take the songs in a slightly different direction than expected -- at least according to what's expected of the song, since these interpretations fit right into the artists' other work. Nellie McKay turns George Harrison's "If I Needed Someone" into swinging lounge-jazz that's just a shade too ironic, but Ted Leo's tightly-wound, ska revival arrangement of "I'm Looking Through You" is certainly one of the highlights here, as is the Fiery Furnaces's "Norwegian Wood." The brother-sister duo reinterpret "Norwegian Wood" as the missing piece from their intricate Blueberry Boat, cutting out the signature acoustic guitar riff and twisting the melody, turning the song into a thick, swirling, organ-heavy, double-tracked ominous collage, complete with a creepy, tape-warped tapestry of piano coda reminiscent of "I Am The Walrus." It's the most imaginative thing here and has an opposite in Sufjan Stevens's similar radical rewrite of "What Goes On," which throws out everything but the lyrics of the original. Where the Fiery Furnaces's reinterpretation sounds lively and imaginative, Stevens sounds contemptuous of his source material, so he decides to recast a nifty country-rock tune into a microcosm of his drama-school art-pop LPs, compressing all of his precious little quirks -- banjos, flutes playing a medieval theme, shifting tempos and disjointed sections -- into a simpering, insufferable mini-suite that grinds this record to a halt. Despite this, the Sufjan track is the only severe misstep in an album filled with good, generally pleasant covers that in no way replace the original Beatles versions but do offer as a nice reminder of what great songwriters Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were.

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