Various Artists: Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur
What if today's musical stars were to wholeheartedly pursue the socially conscious vision that drove John Lennon's solo work?
Amnesty International has performed a noble deed in rounding up a large group of modern music stars to cover songs by John Lennon, with the proceeds going to support Amnesty International’s efforts in Darfur, Africa and on other human rights crises worldwide. As with most compilations, the results are hit and miss. There’s a wide range of genres going on though, as the album looks to offer something for everyone.
Lennon purists will no doubt find some of the tunes lacking, but there’s some strong efforts overall and enough stand out tracks to make the collection a winner, particularly since the proceeds go to a good cause. And if the collection can turn a new generation of fans on to Lennon’s radical socially conscious message, then a dual purpose will be served.
U2 leads off with the album’s title track and does a serviceable job, but something seems missing, almost like the band phoned this one in. The vitality that was so present in Lennon’s original version is absent. R.E.M.’s rendition of “#9 Dream”, on the other hand, is a stellar track all the way around. Singer Michael Stipe really tunes into the vibe of the song and the band delivers an ethereal and indeed dreamy take on the song. Fans of the band’s “Electrolyte” will dig a similar vibe here.
Some rock purists may cringe at the concept of Christina Aguilera covering Lennon, but her “Mother” actually delivers a hauntingly soulful take on the song. Aerosmith with Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars seems like a promising team for “Give Peace a Chance”, but the results fall flat. The music is an interesting reggae arrangement, but the track is unfortunately marred by the vocals. Steven Tyler seems to be a caricature of himself in the verses, and the choruses give the song a cartoon theme song feel, as opposed to the deeply spiritual vibe of the original anti-war classic.
Things pick up with Lenny Kravitz’ “Cold Turkey”, a perfect match for the retro-rocker’s skills. Kravitz brings a funky soulful sound that updates the tune, yet simultaneously pays homage to its ‘70s roots. Los Lonely Boys follow with a sparkling version of “Whatever Gets You Through the Night”, a great match for the bluesy yet upbeat vibe the band is known for. Singer/guitarist Henry Garza delivers strong vocals and some of the best guitar playing on the album.
Corinne Bailey Rae delivers strong vocals on a minimalist live version of “I’m Losing You”, but is then upstaged by “Gimme Some Truth” from Jakob Dylan and Dhani Harrison. Dylan’s trademark world-weary vocals do great justice to what is one of Lennon’s most political songs, while Harrison provides rich harmonies and some great slide guitar.
Jackson Browne comes through with a superbly melancholy take on “Oh, My Love” that really digs into Lennon’s vocal bag, recalling vibes from such Beatles classics as “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “In My Life”. Avril Lavigne offers up the first of the album’s two versions of “Imagine” (the other by Jack Johnson) and while some older fans may find it lacking, Avril delivers a heartfelt take. If this track can turn some of her young fans onto Lennon’s utopian idealism, a true service will be performed.
Neither version rings nearly as deep as the original, but it’s interesting to take note of how “Imagine” and “Gimme Some Truth” both wound up warranting multiple renditions on the compilation (Mexican rockers Jaguares perform “Gimme Some Truth” on disc two.) As author Jon Wiener writes in his Lennon bio Come Together, “ ‘Gimme Some Truth’ together with ‘Imagine’ summed up the radical vision John had developed… anger about the present balanced by hope for the future; hard energy balanced by gentle lyricism; complexity and bitterness balanced by simple beauty: a genuine achievement.”
Country duo Big & Rich perform “Nobody Told Me” with an arrangement that is very faithful to the original, yet also features some electric fiddle and slide guitar that updates the song in a fresh way. Youssou N’Dour ends disc one with “Jealous Guy”, with a soulful vocal and some interesting hand drumming.
Green Day’s “Working Class Hero” starts disc two with a bang and is one of the album’s best cuts. Billie Joe Armstrong clearly resonates with the song on a deep level, demonstrating how Lennon’s brilliant lyrics cut across generations to continue to resonate with universal truth: “They hurt you at home and they hit you at school/ They hate you if you're clever and they despise a fool/ Till you're so fucking crazy you can't follow their rules/ A working class hero is something to be /A working class hero is something to be/ When they've tortured and scared you for 20 odd years/ Then they expect you to pick a career/ When you can't really function you're so full of fear.”
One again ponders the potential effects of a young fan base being turned onto some of the most political lyrics in rock history. As Wiener writes in Come Together, “ ‘Imagine’ together with ‘Working Class Hero’… expressed the New Left position… the potential power of the working class is undermined by a repressive culture; restoring the utopian imagination is a key step toward social transformation.”
“Power to the People” from Black Eyed Peas starts off promising, but their version fails to build on the track’s early energy. The choruses resonate, but the verses are rather tepid and the creativity wanes. Jack Johnson’s “Imagine” follows and his version differs from Lavigne’s in that he accompanies himself on acoustic guitar rather than piano. Johnson’s pal Ben Harper follows that with “Beautiful Boy”, and Harper’s deeply soulful voice provides another of the album’s standout moments.
Snow Patrol ‘s “Isolation” is an appropriately atmospheric rendition that does a fine job of capturing the essence of the song. Hassidic reggae star Matisyahu performs “Watching the Wheels”, and while his version can’t quite capture the magic of Lennon’s, the reggae-infused cover provides an interestingly playful new arrangement. Postal Service deliver an atmospheric take on “Grow Old With Me” that fits right in with Snow Patrol’s “Isolation” in capturing the distant side of Lennon’s personality.
The second version of “Gimme Some Truth”, from Jaguares, strikes musical gold. The vocals aren’t as clear and soulful as Jakob Dylan’s, but the differing production provides an interesting twist as Jaguares deliver the song in a more psychedelic fashion. The Flaming Lips build on that psychedelia with their cover of “(Just Like) Starting Over”, which features the Lips’ trademark sonic tricks along with a heartfelt vocal and crisp acoustic guitar that pays homage to the original.
The album winds up with “God” by Jack’s Mannequin featuring Mick Fleetwood providing some strong drum work, and “Real Love” from Regina Spektor. The solo piano tune may be a somewhat anti-climactic finale to some, but seems appropriate considering the Darfur cause: "Just like little girls and boys/ Playing with their little toys/ Seems like all they really were doing/ Was waiting for love/ Don't need to be alone/ No need to be alone/ It's real love.”
Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono has said in interviews that she believes the Darfur situation is exactly the type of cause that Lennon would be working to support if he were still around. As last year’s documentary The U.S. Versus John Lennon showed in disturbing fashion, the American government once felt quite threatened by the cultural power of politically motivated rock stars like Lennon. One gets the feeling that the current regime has no such fears because there’s no one star that stands out today like Lennon once did. But Instant Karma offers a tantalizing peek at what might be possible if a whole range of today’s musical stars were to wholeheartedly pursue the type of socially conscious vision that drove Lennon’s solo work. Imagine...