Thursday, September 20, 2007

If you want to be a hero, well, just follow me

Beatlemaniacs, humanitarians and fans of collaborative rock projects: have you heard about "Instant Karma: The Campaign to Save Darfur"? It's a John Lennon tribute! It's a humanitarian effort! It's a dubious promotional offer from American Express! It's an unprecedented John-Lennon-song-catalog windfall for iTunes! All this and more wrapped up in a single website -- an obnoxious, confusing, glitchy, flash-based website. Proceed at your own risk.

To spare you the frustration of trying to navigate the project's website, here's the gist: a bunch of artists recorded covers of John Lennon songs -- made available through the generosity of Yoko Ono -- and many of those recordings appear on a two-disc album, sold to raise money, or maybe just awareness, in support of Amnesty International's efforts in Darfur. There are lots of ways you can contribute: You can buy the album. You can buy individual tracks on iTunes. You can buy a Green Day "Working Class Hero" T-shirt. You can sign an online petition, demanding that the killing stop. could just donate money directly to Amnesty International. I'm not a huge fan of consumerism-as-charity (or charity-as-consumerism), and I'm not at all sure how exactly this project works, so I'm going to drop the Darfur/Amnesty International angle from here on out and focus on the music. Because whatever I might think of this as a charitable endeavor, I am here to tell you it's a solid tribute album.

The 23 tracks I've heard (I have the standard U.S. version of the album -- more on the various options in a bit) are, by and large, very successful covers -- just original enough to be worthwhile, but still faithful enough to avoid being irksome. Rather than looking for a radical approach, most artists made the songs their own in subtle ways, by deemphasizing a prominent feature of Lennon's original version and allowing their own sound to shine through in a way that illuminates Lennon's craft as a songwriter. For example, U2's "Instant Karma" drops the original's percussive insistence and brings out a subtle reggae influence. R.E.M. turns in a "#9 Dream" that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Out of Time, and retains the ethereal flavor of Lennon's version (although I'll admit I miss Yoko's whispering "John..." in the appropriate spots).

My favorite of the 23 tracks I've heard is "Gimme Some Truth" as performed by "Jakob Dylan featuring Dhani Harrison." Replace Dylan with Sean (or even Julian) Lennon, and you've got yourself one hell of a coup. But the actual pairing is nothing to sneeze at, and I love the way it turned out. I was going to compliment Dhani on his -- if I may -- positively Georgian guitar solo, but the credits on the website list him as providing vocals only. So perhaps that's someone else doing what George did best, but regardless, the harmonized vocal line is a very nice touch.

Jackson Browne makes sure the lovely "Oh My Love" doesn't get overlooked. Big & Rich turn in a friendly, country-flavored "Nobody Told Me." Green Day's "Working Class Hero" is not as punkish as you might expect, but it distinguishes itself by downplaying the two-note guitar figure that drives Lennon's version, and by ending with a snippet of Lennon's own vocals. That's a trick that could have been overused, but happily no one else tries it, so it's very effective here.

I've long heard people talk about how "talented" Christina Aguilera is, but since I am unable to stand listening to her music for more than 3 seconds at a stretch, I have never been able to test that claim for myself. Now I know it's true, because she turns in a fine rendition of -- of all things -- "Mother," with restrained melisma vocalizing in place of Lennon's primal screams. The instrumentation sounds great, too; just as spare as Lennon's but not quite so ponderous. If Aguilera did an album of Lennon covers -- and if Linda Perry produced it, as she did this track -- I just might buy it.

The more adventurous departures from Lennon's templates generally work out well -- the Postal Service's "Grow Old With Me" and the Flaming Lips' "(Just Like) Starting Over" are especially worth hearing, and Snow Patrol does a moody "Isolation." I don't know who Corinne Bailey Rae is, but I love what she's done with "I'm Losing You," and I love how the song takes on a new dimension when the singer is a woman. And Regina Spektor's "Real Love" turned out much better than the "Beatles" version on the second Anthology album.

Meanwhile, back-to-back tracks by Jack Johnson ("Imagine" -- and unfortunately, he's not the only one) and Ben Harper (a less cloying, but also less appealing, "Beautiful Boy") prove, once and for all, that they are not the same person -- an impression I have long struggled to shake -- but are otherwise unremarkable. The other "Imagine" on the U.S. non-AmEx release is performed by Avril Lavigne, and it's equally skippable. Which brings me to my main criticism of the project: too many overlapping song choices. Along with two uninteresting "Imagine"s, this 23-track selection includes two "Gimme Some Truth" covers that aren't that different from each other (or from the original), which seems like a big waste of space. And a little more imagination might have resulted in a little less "Imagine" overall -- sure, one rendition was probably inevitable, given the popularity of the song and the nature of the project. But for a song that is both overfamiliar and not terribly conducive to reinterpretation, five covers is far, far too many. And there are a number of tunes in Lennon's catalog that don't show up on this list. (Didn't anybody want a shot at "Woman Is the Nigger of the World"?)

My other complaint is that the final lineup includes way too much reggae (or reggae flavoring). At some point someone ought to have told the participating artists: The fact that you can perform many of Lennon's songs to an island beat doesn't necessarily mean you should. "Give Peace a Chance," as performed by "Aerosmith featuring Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars," was probably asking for this treatment, and Aerosmith's approach to the verses is novel, but novelty only goes so far, and the track ends up being more obnoxious than anthemic. Other close-but-no-cigar entries include Lenny Kravitz's funky but low-energy "Cold Turkey"; the Black Eyed Peas' fuzzy "Power to the People," which makes me think there's something wrong with my stereo; and "God," performed by "Jack's Mannequin featuring Mick Fleetwood." The last is very faithful to Lennon's original, which, in this case, is probably a mistake. "God" is so personal a statement on Lennon's part that a cover artist should lay claim to it assertively or else leave it alone. When Lennon declares, "I don't believe in Beatles," it's devastating; when Jack's Mannequin makes the same statement, it's presumptuous. Who asked you?

So, let's say you want to check out the music. You've got a lot of choices: There's the version I have, with its 23 tracks. American Express cardholders can buy a "limited edition" version with a bonus disc of six more tracks -- which is surely what Lennon would have wanted. And then there's Make Some Noise, the international version, which has five tracks not on the U.S. version (and is missing one, a polished "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" by Los Lonely Boys). That might be the best way to go, because you'll get a chance to hear "Love" as performed by the Cure, and a-ha's take on "#9 Dream." (I haven't heard either, and I'm dying to.) But you'll still be missing out, because the project's website lists a total of 69 available tracks. I assume you can purchase all of these from the iTunes store, but I'm having trouble accessing iTunes to verify, and I'm getting a headache trying to navigate the official project site. So I leave that to you to determine. Tell me how it turns out! And if you've already heard the music, what do you think? Are there song/artist pairings you'd like to hear? Comments are open as always.

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