Forty years ago, the Beatles escaped the boy-band ghetto of their bubblegum early years with Rubber Soul, the first in their string of classic middle- and late-'60s albums. To commemorate, Razor and Tie has compiled this rarest of things: a tribute album to another album. The set is composed almost entirely of Pitchfork darlings and No Depression icons, and as with all tribute albums, some of the artists play it safe and some of them reinvent the material.
In the former camp, Dar Williams, Rhett Miller and Mindy Smith all turn in pleasant, risk-free versions of (respectively) "You Won't See Me," "Girl" and "The Word." The Yonder Mountain String Band's "Think For Yourself" sounds the most like the Beatles' original of any song here, albeit with bluegrass instrumentation, and it's more or less innocuous. On the other hand, Ben Lee slows down the tempo of "In My Life" to a crawl. He's aiming for majesty, apparently, but instead he finds only tedium. Speaking of tedium, the Donnas serve up a ho-hum bar-band rendition of "Drive My Car" and Ben Kweller and Albert Hammond Jr.'s limp cover is not worth the "Wait."
On to the reinventions. Low's naked "Nowhere Man" is all pretty harmonies with nowhere to go, but it's relatively harmless. Which brings us to the Fiery Furnaces. Holy Mother of Christ -- all of the misdeeds of Lee, Low, the Donnas and Kweller/Hammond utterly pale in comparison to these so-called geniuses' herky-jerky, um, "reimagining" of "Norwegian Wood." Folks, this is awful, awful stuff, a blatant exercise in pretension masking a lack of talent, a shuddering pustule of suppurating musical leprosy.
It's not that I'm against reinventing these tunes; far from it. Sufjan Stevens takes just as many liberties with his paisley-tinged, Ren fair-like "What Goes On" with infinitely better results, and Ted Leo's deliciously over-the-top acid ska remake of "I'm Looking Through You" is pure genius. Ben Harper's reggae-lite "Michelle" is salvaged by sweet singing and nifty guitar work; Nellie McKay's "If I Needed Someone" is a pleasant cup of espresso at a Parisian cafe; and the Cowboy Junkies' "Run For Your Life" finds the Canadians strongly recalling Los Lobos on "The Neighborhood."
But is all of that enough to counterbalance the insult that is the FF's "Norwegian Wood"? Probably not, and in that sense you can't call this a tribute album at all, unless your idea of a tribute is an ice pick in the eardrums. This Bird Has Flown? Nah. This Bird Has Just Shat on Your Head.
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