A great cause inspires a halfway-decent Beatles tribute album.
The prospect of contributing to a multi-act tribute album must present some dilemmas for the emerging artist. How freely can you interpret an iconic song before you're no longer paying homage and instead paying insult? How do you convey admiration without being slavish? As listeners, we're forced to consider the various ways of interpretation, from replication to exploration, and evaluate accordingly.
To review the Minnesota Beatle Project Vol. 3, a charity album by Minnesota-based artists for music and arts education programs in the state's public schools, I've devised a Beatles-specific framework that could work, in theory, for any tribute album. By sorting these Beatles covers using widely-held, if over-simplified, perceptions of the individual Beatles, I will try to address them based on mode of tribute. Some covers are intended crowdpleasers, sticking close to the originals; we'll call those "Pauls". Others depart from the original recordings in idiosyncratic ways; we'll call those "Johns". Some covers, rather than carve out innovative territory, transpose the songs to discrete, existing genres; in the spirit of George Harrison's experiments in Indian music, we'll call those "Georges". The funny ones are, of course, "Ringos".
As on most tribute albums, Pauls dominate here, and not messing with a good thing serves some of these artists well. Motion City Soundtrack's "Here Comes the Sun" captures the spirit of the original, meticulously recreating the bright acoustic guitars and studio dry drums of the original, while adding a personal stamp via the band's signature moog. The Honeydogs, Tapes'n'Tapes, and Cantus don't innovate much in their respective covers of "Dear Prudence", "I Want You (She's So Heavy)", and "Got to Get You Into My Life", but little touches keep them from redundancy. Tapes'n'Tapes take a cue from the brief, slightly funky iteration of the verse in the latter half of the Beatles' original and give the whole song some extra bounce without sacrificing the proto-metal heft of the chorus. Meanwhile, the Honeydogs and Cantus effectively flip horn sections, with the former tastefully accenting the originally horn-less "Prudence" with some tasty trumpets, and the latter substituting the Beatles' most prominent brass arrangement with massed vocals, strings, and sitar.
The problem with Pauls is that too much fidelity can easily yield redundancy. White Light Riot's "Hey Bulldog", the Arms Akimbo's "You Won't See Me", and the 4onthefloor's "Why Don't We Do It in the Road" are respectful facsimiles that add virtually nothing. Red Pens' "Helter Skelter" is an intensely literal reading of the Beatles' best and oft-covered barnstormer. The band plays it so safe that the energy feels like a put-on right through the all-too-faithful false ending (as if to emphasize the level of effort put forth, however, no reports of blistered fingers follow).
The assumption behind every John is that the covered song is intrinsically strong enough to stand up to substantial reinterpretation, a reasonable expectation when it comes to the Beatles. Cloud Cult kicks off the collection with a characteristically shape-shifting reworking of "Help" that piles on orchestral touches, rhythmic shifts, and novel harmonies, but loses none of the original's desperation. Solid Gold strips the sitars and tablas from "Love You To" entirely and reinterprets George Harrison's neo-raga as hypnotic, hazy electro-pop. Dark Dark Dark directs its love for thrice-repeated monosyllables toward "Long, Long, Long", nicely channeling the song's intrinsic melancholy via understated piano, distant percussion, and Nona Marie Invie's ghostly vocals. The only letdown among the album's Johns is Me and My Arrow's "Don't Let Me Down", which begins as a redundant Paul, but abandons dull replication along the way for a series of off-putting experiments in vocal manipulation and group shout-alongs on the title phrase. Perhaps this is the otherwise Ringo-free collection's attempt at humor?
This leaves three Georges. Charlie Parr and Nicholas Mrozinski's take on "Rocky Raccoon" is basically an exaggerated Paul, an attempt to take the original's stab at folkiness further into the realm of two-step Americana. It's a predictable approach, but it works well enough. The Fiddle Heirs, a supergroup featuring members of Trampled by Turtles, Pert Near Sandstone, and Pocahontas County, bring considerably more flare to an "I've Got a Feeling" fueled by strings, claps, and an appropriately loose rooftop concert feel.
And finally, there's the ostensible raison d'être of the set, a George with purpose. Anoka Middle School of the Arts' performance of "A Hard Day's Night" sounds exactly like a particularly good middle school concert band performing "A Hard Day's Night". These aspiring musicians, however, are using equipment bought with a grant financed by sales of the first Minnesota Beatle Project collection, and 100% of the sales from this album are destined for other art and music programs throughout Minnesota. With this in mind, there's a caveat to that grade below, which reflects the musical virtues of the set. By my math, four solid Pauls, three great Johns, and one solid, one very good, and one inspirational George justifies a five. Given the undeniably good intentions of the album, though, it may be worth a buy on philanthropic grounds.