It’s a tall order to cover classic material. Do you remain as close as possible to the original in tone and spirit as an homage to the artist at hand, or do you make the song completely your own and risk offending the rock gods? Covering the Beatles is neigh on impossible. Not only have Beatles songs already been covered by such musical giants as Aretha Franklin and the Beach Boys, but also the originals themselves are nearly flawless. That’s why it’s only fair to cut the artists appearing on this new tribute to Rubber Soul a little slack: They’re treading on hallowed ground.
There is a wide swath of interpretation of This Bird, ranging from a reggae-tinged “Michelle” from Ben Harper to a folksy version of “You Won’t See Me,” by Dar Williams. Then there is a country-fried “The Word” by Mindy Smith and a sexy, genre-defying version of “Run for Your Life,” by the Cowboy Junkies. Yonder Mountain String Band and Rhett Miller win the prize for adhering closest to the Beatles originals on “Think For Yourself” and “Girl,” respectively.
The various interpretations, not surprisingly, meet with varying levels of success. Sufjan Stevens manages to make his whimsical take on “What Goes On” nearly twice as long as the original, filling his arrangement to the brim with trilling flutes and pretty synthesizer work. Ted Leo’s skankin’ “I’m Looking Through You” is closer to the original, but he adds a boppy guitar and slightly more upbeat vocals.
Other highlights include Low’s “Nowhere Man,” which in some ways improves on the original, if only because the Fab Four’s voices were always a bit flat. Low’s husband and wife duo of Mimi Parker and Alan Sparkhawk record lucid harmonies with, frankly, better voices than the Beatles ever had.
Nellie McKay’s “If I Needed Someone” and the Fiery Furnaces “Norwegian Wood” are unfortunate missteps in an otherwise completely agreeable album. McKay’s sultry, night club chanteuse imitating, attempt at “If I Needed Someone” is bland and mildly irritating, while the Furnaces sound like they’re in a Velvet Underground cover band covering the Beatles, with sing-speak vocals that fall flat on what was once such a lovely, wistful song.
Ultimately, the surviving Beatles have a truly loving collection of covers by an eclectic group of musicians to add to their bank of tributes, and the departed Beatles have no reason to roll over in their graves on this one: It’s a success, albeit a qualified one. Most of the artists on This Bird decided to stay relatively close to the path forged by the Beatles, and if it’s good enough for John, Paul, George, and Ringo, it’s good enough for Ted, Mindy, Dar, and Ben.