[23 October 2005]
Although memories lose their meanings
It’s a truism that tribute albums never sound as good as the originals that inspired them. How could they? It’s like that Joni Mitchell line about Van Gogh. Hey Vincent, could you paint me another masterpiece? If only it were that easy. So why bother? Several answers come to mind. The remakes can reveal hidden aspects about the original compositions. The covers can shed light on the interpreters’ visions of the creative process of music. The object of the accolades may have been unduly forgotten or pigeonholed. The remakes allow one to hear the songs again with fresh ears. Most of the tracks on Razor & Tie’s tribute to The Beatles’s Rubber Soul follow at least one of these three justifications. While the disc should never replace The Beatles’ classic album in anyone’s collection, there are still several good reasons to listen to it.
The best interpretations work in two ways. They show something about the original tune that may not be apparent, and illustrate the talents of musicians covering the song. Nellie McKay’s finger popping “If I Needed Someone” falls into that category. Her breezy version highlights the strangeness of the lyrics. “If I had some more time to spend, / I guess it would be with you my friend, / If I needed someone”, she sings in a straightforward manner which draws attention to the ambiguity of the language. What seems to be a love song comes off as a gentle brush off. If there were time enough and no one else around, then maybe I would take you as a lover. McKay’s breathy annunciations make her simultaneously seductive and bored—a mark of true sophistication.
Sufjan Stevens’ rendition of “What Goes On” functions in a similar way. He deconstructs the melody to emphasize the disconnect between the verses and the chorus in a way that reflects the division between his lover’s thoughts and emotions (i.e. “What goes on in your heart? / What goes on in your mind?”). Stevens’ trademark sweetness, expressed in a melodious high pitched voice accompanied by gentle instrumentation and a shaking tambourine, makes the object of his affections’ finicky treatment of him that much more brutal. When The Beatles sang about being torn apart by unkindness, this seemed more metaphorical than literal—Stevens articulates the pain described in the language.
The Fiery Furnaces take a different tack on “Norwegian Wood”. Their psychedelic version spotlights the weirdness already implicit in the original. The Fiery Furnaces use keyboards, vocal quirks, and odd tempo changes instead of a sitar to reveal the disorienting effects that the woman had on the narrator. Musically, the song doesn’t sound much like the one The Beatles’ recorded. The Fiery Furnaces’ cover is enjoyable to hear, especially if one is already a fan of the band, but doesn’t suggest anything new about what the song means.
Many of the other covers follow The Beatles’ lead, albeit with different instrumentation or vocal harmonies. For example, the Yonder Mountain String Band performs a bluegrass version of “Think for Yourself” with banjos and mandolins instead of guitars. The Donnas do a rollicking “Drive My Car” that mimics the original note for note, right down to the cowbells and guitar licks, but with female voices instead of John and Paul’s. The Donnas sound like they’re having fun, which is more than one can say about Ben Lee. His interpretation of the reflective “In My Life” has him pining for the past more than celebrating his future now that he’s found true love. Lee’s dour cover makes sense. The song is about time passing. The Beatles glossed over the fact that present happiness is doomed to fade as time continues to flow onward. One can’t just “Wait”, or put life on hold as Ben Kweller sings. Kweller’s version sticks pretty close to the original, which befits lyrics about delaying change.
Rhett Miller’s “Girl”, Dar Williams’ “You Won’t See Me”, Low’s “Nowhere Man”, and several other cuts offer pleasant versions performed similarly to the ones The Beatles’ made forty years ago. The fact that these songs stand the test of time is a testament to Rubber Soul’s continuing importance in the rock canon. The overwhelming influence of The Beatles has somehow managed to demean the value of the band’s music. It’s difficult to hear these songs as something other than oldies, but they are more than emblems of the past. Hopefully this album will inspire people to listen to these tunes again as great songs rather than as relics of the ‘60s.