Various Artists: Listen to What the Man Said: Popular Artists Pay Tribute to the Music of Pa
Coming Up: Independent Artists Pay Tribute to the Music of Paul McCartney
US release date: 30 October 2001
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Not long ago, some friends and I were discussing an Audiogalaxy article on the worst songs by the best bands. Inevitably, the article included a bit on the Beatles, with the unsurprising choice of "The Long and Winding Road" as the most inessential Beatles track. But while discussing this, one of my roommates said:
"Yeah, but I don't think there's any question about who had the better solo career".
And he meant John Lennon.
In many ways, I can't fault him. Since his 1980 assassination, the canonization of Lennon (mockingly referred to by Paul McCartney as "Martin Luther Lennon", a tag later used as the name for a Los Angeles power-pop group) has made him seem like a martyr and a genius. Many have rightfully lavished praise upon his solo works.
However, Lennon's solo works were every bit as inconsistent as McCartney's. For each disc like Imagine, there was another like Wedding Music, an album comprised of only two cuts and featuring little more than Yoko wailing away. Even "Give Peace a Chance", a song so socially important that it deserves to be played in high-school history classes, simply isn't as great a song as it is a sentiment.
With that, it's no surprise that lately Paul McCartney has finally been given his critical due. Like Lennon's, his career has been hit-and-miss. But the major difference between the two is that while Lennon's solo works were often weighted down with self-important political commentary, McCartney has continuously churned out solid pop album after solid pop album. Granted, some have certainly been more inspired than others, and maybe this release pattern isn't as innovative as Lennon's wildly eclectic work, but it's what many pop fans (and many Beatles fans) want most.
That focus on solid -- even if classicist and occasionally derivative -- pop music is probably what attracted a group of 31 pop musicians who have followed in McCartney's vein to a pair of tribute albums on Oglio Records. For over two years, word of this project has circulated on the internet and, while it was often delayed (partly because Paul apparently didn't want it to happen) and while some of the original artists are absent here (Fountains of Wayne, Ben Folds, and XTC were all initially rumored to be included), this is a sparkling set that attempts to set the record straight: Paul McCartney knows how to write a damn good pop song.
The first of the two discs, Listen to What the Man Said: Popular Artists Pay Tribute to the Music of Paul McCartney is the one that will probably appeal to the most fans. Featuring the more "big name" acts of the 31 artists, it isn't exactly a who's who of the current pop landscape, but fans of independent pop music and power pop will find a lot of their favorites present. While most of these versions don't radically alter the original McCartney compositions, they often change the elements just enough to bring out the best in the song, or to right what may have been wrong with the song in the first place. Owsley's direct, clean rendition of "Band on the Run", for example, is a fairly faithful reworking of the track, while at the same time he manages to accent and highlight all the right points. The Merrymakers transform "No More Lonely Nights" from a ho-hum pop song to a soaring power ballad, simply by tossing in a few power chords during the chorus. John Faye Power Trip takes the otherwise weak "Coming Up" and tweaks it, turning it into a fuzzy chunk of power pop. Matthew Sweet, Sloan, and the Virgos all manage to put their stamp on the material while remaining faithful to the originals.
Like on most tribute albums, however, there are always a few bands that churn out a paint-by-numbers cover, and this one is no exception. Semisonic's "Jet", for example, sounds almost precisely like the original, as does "Junk" by Steven Page, Kevin Hearn (both of Barenaked Ladies), and Stephen Duffy. And then there are the songs that don't quite make it. Some of the more downbeat material, in particular -- like the Judybats' "Love in Song" or the Minus 5's "Dear Friend" -- feels like it drags the album along. Others may be divided on SR-71's spiky punk-pop reworking of "My Brave Face"; is it a freshly minted, charmingly scruffy new version, or is it merely the sound of the heart of McCartney's effervescent songwriting being ripped free of the song?
The second disc of the compilation, entitled Coming Up: Independent Artists Pay Tribute to the Music of Paul McCartney is the one most fans may bypass because of a lack of familiarity with the artists. It would be a mistake. While the highs achieved on the first disc are quite high, "Coming Up" has more consistent performances on the whole, and fewer duds. Many of the artists here lean heavily on the burgeoning modern power-pop scene, and that's fitting since to these unpretentious purveyors of pop, Paul McCartney is nearly a God-like figure. So it's no surprise, then, to see versions of some of the more cheesy McCartney songs, such as the Masticators' easy-listening remake of "With a Little Luck", or the early single "Another Day", done here by Cherry Twister.
What these artists manage to do is show that even when McCartney is doing what many lambasted him for -- writing "Silly Love Songs" -- he is a skilled craftsman, and his work is anything but forgettable. Even the Andersons' remake of "Temporary Secretary" (featuring vocals by former child star Robbie Rist, who played Cousin Oliver on the Brady Bunch) manages to expose McCartney's true pop talent. This is despite the fact that this song is one of his weakest compositions. Any fan of McCartney's material would be done right by this second disc, filled to the brim with faithful remakes by such critically acclaimed artists as Cliff Hillis, the Jellybricks, Michael Carpenter, and the Shazam.
This pair of discs is also the first in what will be a series of Tribute LLC albums, designed to raise money for charitable causes. Each of these pledges to donate a part of the sale price to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in honor of Paul's wife (and musical collaborator) Linda, who died in 1998.
So while some long-time fans of Paul McCartney may find these new versions to be disconcerting, this set isn't intended for them as much as it is for legions of younger pop fans who may have missed out on Macca's solo recordings because they were so overshadowed by his work with the Beatles. And if these two discs make a new generation of fans pull out a copy of Wingspan and discover the virtues of "Junior's Farm" or "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey", as they did with me, then they have achieved the ultimate goal of a solid tribute album.