Tuesday, February 19, 2013

It's Not Sam . . . It's The Beatles! (Sort Of)

The Good: Some great covers of songs by the Beatles
The Bad: Nothing explosively brilliant in the reinterpretations
The Basics: In a remarkably average musical outing, decent artists are paired with a song by The Beatles that will not challenge them and they rise to the occasion.

I remember watching and enjoying I Am Sam (reviewed here!), but truth be told, I do not recall anything especially wonderful about the soundtrack while the movie was going on. I mean, Batman Returns, The Last of the Mohicans and The Empire Strike Back all had soundtracks that had (at least moments) tracks that were instantly recognizable or truly resonated with me. So, as I've been looking up more music on some of my favorite artists (Heather Nova, Sarah McLachlan, etc.) I kept seeing "Music From And Inspired By The Motion Picture I Am Sam" coming up in my searches and I was a little surprised. It became something I figured I might as well pick up and give a spin.

With seventeen tracks, clocking in at 55 minutes, this album is a celebration of the music of The Beatles. Seventeen different artists each covered a different Beatles song. Truth be told, none of the tracks sparked a single memory from the movie, which as I understand used the cover versions of the Beatles songs because Michael Jackson was charging $300,000 for use of each original track. So, this review will instead focus on I Am Sam (the soundtrack album) as an album independent endeavor.

It's dull. It's not entirely bad or anything, but it is dull. All seventeen tracks are simply the individual artists singing songs by The Beatles. This is a special disappointment for me as a fan of Heather Nova. Heather Nova does a cover of Bruce Springsteen's classic "I'm On Fire" on her live album Wonderlust (reviewed here!). What makes her cover different from an artist simply singing another artist's song is that Nova makes the song her own, changing the gender of the subject of the song, changing the pace and basically reinterpreting or recreating the song. Perhaps the best cover song I've ever heard was Sophie B. Hawkins's reimagining of Bob Dylan's "I Want You" from her debut album (reviewed here!). It was such a profoundly different song that when I first heard Dylan's hokey honky-tonk original I was baffled. I said, "I recognize the words, but this song is terrible! What is it?!" Hawkins completely reimagines the song and she owns it. So profound is her version, she owns it!

There is nothing remotely close to that on I Am Sam. This is not so much artists "covering" the Beatles as they are singing the songs of the group. They don't interpret, they don't add their own flavor, they don't have the zest of the artist performing the song. So, for example, Eddie Vedder sings "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" and it doesn't push his range, it does not challenge him and he does not challenge it. He keeps it safe and Beatle-esque. Song after song, it's current artists singing Beatles songs. They aren't performing them, they're just singing them. Were I that Simon guy from "American Idol," I'd likely be more succinct and say "It's pure karaoke!"

And it is. All seventeen tracks are perfectly chosen to fit the artist who sings them. So, for example, "Blackbird" sounds perfectly natural coming from Sarah McLachlan and The Black Crowes singing "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" sounds like they've been singing it forever. Honestly, if Eddie Vedder was going to sing a song by The Beatles, "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" would have been one of the three I'd figure he would do and do well. If, that is, I was trying to match artists to a song they already sound like.

Even Heather Nova doing "We Can Work It Out" has the feel of fitting her range and ability. So, in short, I Am Sam has the songs, but it's nothing terribly new. One spin for the novelty of hearing the songs by the Beatles performed by artists you care about will likely do it for you.

The only real exception is Nick Cave singing "Let It Be." Cave does not make significant changes to the song, but he sings the song with his distinct baritone and sense of rhythm (he puts some stops in throughout the song that seem very much him). As I understand it, the European version has three additional tracks, including Cave singing George Harrison's "Here Comes The Sun." I would have liked to hear that.

But, as I said, this is a very safe album. This is Nick Cave singing "Let It Be," not "Octopus's Garden." This has Sheryl Crow singing "Mother Nature's Son," not They Might Be Giants covering "Yellow Submarine." It's a collection of safe songs performed safely by safe artists (how about a NIN - or Marliyn Manson - cover of "Revolution" or "Help!") and in that way, it's a serious disappointment. I'm not much of a fan of either NIN or Manson, but it strikes me that if one wants to hear something really covered, truly reinterpreted, you can't go with safe artists that fit the exact mold of the song you want played. And I Am Sam is all very safe pairings.

I pretty much never do this, but here's what the album consists of:
Aimee Mann and Michael Penn - "Two of Us"
Sarah McLachlan - "Blackbird"
Rufus Wainright - "Across The Universe"
The Wallflowers - "I'm Looking Through You"
Eddie Vedder - "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away"
Ben Harper - "Strawberry Fields Forever"
Sheryl Crow - "Mother Nature's Son"
Ben Folds - "Golden Slumbers"
The Vines - "I'm Only Sleeping"
Stereophonics - "Don't Let Me Down"
The Black Crowes - "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds"
Chocolate Genius - "Julia"
Heather Nova - "We Can Work It Out"
Howie Day - "Help!"
Paul Westerberg - "Nowhere Man"
Grandaddy - "Revolution"
Nick Cave - "Let It Be"

If you are obsessed with any of those artists or any of those songs, that's who and what is on this album. The truth is, if you have a favorite artist on this list, odds are there is a way to legally download an individual track to get just the artist/song you want. It's probably a better investment than buying the album. That is, unless you like unremarkable karaoke of the Beatles.

Ironically, there's not a single Beatles cover by Oasis here (Oasis is always being compared in the media to the Beatles and has done several covers of Beatles songs), but then if there had been, I've a pretty good idea what track it would have been. The best song is "Let It Be" (sorry Heather!) and the low point is "Julia." I'm going to go cleanse my palate with Dar Williams's cover of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" (from My Better Self, reviewed here!) and try to remember what it's like when an artist takes a known work and does something surprising with it.

For other soundtrack reviews, please visit my takes on:
Watchmen 2-track single
Songs In The Key Of Springfield from The Simpsons
Dead Man Walking Soundtrack


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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