Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Bizarro Rubber Soul

I can't help myself -- Sgt. Pepper's was so much fun, I just had to do another one, and what better than the magnificent Rubber Soul? Think of it as a birthday present to myself, my birthday being October 8th (the day before John Lennon's birthday, as I have been acutely aware since 1964).

Only one hitch:  The LP I bought with my babysitting money in 1966 was significantly different from the LP that was released in the UK in 1965, with various songs siphoned off for Beatles VI . Which tracklist should I follow? I've opted for the British version, because it's longer and just too juicy to resist.  But the song sequence of the platter I spun ad nauseum in my pink bedroom still has a hold on me....

Drive My Car
Cover by Bobby McFerrin

How delicious is this? The amazing Mr. McFerrin, creating an entire orchestra with just his own voice, which is perfect for this sprightly jazzy number, a classic escapist Paul track. Don't it just make you want to head out of town? Beep-beep unh beep-beep yah!

Norwegian Wood
Cover by Tim O'Brien

That plangent pennywhistle opening tells you we're going Appalachian with this eternally mystifying tale of the Girl Who Wouldn't Play By the Rules. What a groundbreaker it was back in the day: A chick who was even more elusive than the guys who wanted to make time with her. "She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh" -- a feminist statement if ever there was one. The ever-wonderful Tim O'Brien -- whom first I heard on a "Muswell Hillbillies" cover -- pushes this folk-rock classic into bluegrass territory, stripping away the Swinging London 1960s subtext. Here we are in 2013, and the mating dance is just as confused as ever.

You Won't See Me
Cover by Dennis Brown

Why not go reggae with this number?  The late great Jamaican star Dennis Brown infuses this edgy track with a mellow shrug of "whatever, mon."  When John Lennon sings it, you have the sense that he's lashing out at a girlfriend who doesn't measure up; Brown is just happily checking out. "Time after time / You refuse to even listen" --  that's your trip, sister, but he's already moved on.

Nowhere Man
Cover by Paul Westerberg

As already stated, I love this track to death -- a heartbreaking cover of an already heartbreaking song.

Think For Yourself
Molly Maher and Her Disbelievers

From the wonderful Minnesota Beatles Project, this spiky feminist reading throws a little paprika in the face of this "don't fence me in" tune. Having a woman sing it instead of a man makes all the difference. When we heard George sing this in 1965, he was pushing back against all sorts of things -- smothering females, government interference -- but in Molly Maher's hands it's a groovy kick in the head against all the forces that be. Love how she plays with the melody, kicking it up a notch, flicking a corrective note, letting us all know that this girl is here and must be reckoned with. Got that, fellas?   

The Word
Bettye Lavette

The magnificent Bettye Lavette, reinterpreting Beatles classics as only a chick with some serious cred could do. Did the Beatles even know how funky this song could go? "Word" in 1965 meant some underground code, but let's bust that loose today, y'all. Check out 2:34 in this track -- you think this song is over? Take a deep breath, and oh yes, let's get down to where the word really happens....

Cover by Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals

I've been a Ben Harper fan for a while now, having been turned on at the Tibet House benefit to #2 in my House of Bens. (Sorry, but Ben Folds grabbed the top spot years ago, but seriously, Ben H you rock the soulful dimension here.) When I was a kid, the David and Jonathan single edged the Beatles original, but I'm open to interpretations, and the reggae-tinged Harper version offers some intriguing alternatives. And this Michelle chick, she brings in so many other dimensions..,.

What Goes On
Cover by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

Remember these original roots rockers, of "Mr. Bojangles" fame? I love how they take this proto-country number and twang it up. The Beatles always hedged their bets with some country-esque tracks, and the NGDB rises to meet the challenge with an unapologetic twangy rendition of this secondary track.

Cover by Rhett Miller

Now you know I love Rhett Miller, lead singer for the Old 97s, alt.country faves who zoomed straight onto the list of My Guys. I dig the earnestness of his rendition, a perfect counterpoint to John Lennon's ambivalent approach to this girl. Where John sounds on the verge of dumping her, Rhett sounds entranced and intrigued by her mystifying ways. What we lose in the raw pain of Lennon's original, we gain in Miller's willingness to let the girl be her own person. A toss-up, in my book.

I'm Looking Through You
Cover by the Wallflowers

Among the wonderful Beatles cover on this soundtrack album, I immediately responded to this twangy rendition by the Wallflowers, blissfully unaware that the Wallflowers' front man is Jakob Dylan -- son of Bob, with whom I have a complicated history. But I have to say, this is a sweet cover version, bright and lively and not too hung up on the song's inherent cynicism. "Why tell me why did you not treat me right" -- it would be so easy to make this song nasty and snide.  The Wallflowers refuse to go there. Good on them.

In My Life
Cover by Roberta Flack

Ah, Roberta. She always came off as a woman who actually had a life, a thinking and feeling existence that informed every note she sang. Her jazzy samba take on this folk-tinged Paul McCartney classic is a calculated risk: Lose the earnestness, go for the melodic tempo. It's not an unqualified success, but it has one virtue: It makes me hear the original anew.

Cover by Ben Kweller

My number 3 Ben, with Folds and Harper in the mix, but oh, I do love this guy too.  The tentative herky-jerky tempos of this track make you wait for it -- trembling on the interface -- "I know that you will wait for me." It's all about quivering on that junction, poised to go one way or another. Wait, in other words -- the essence of this track.  

If I Needed Someone
Cover by Show of Hands

Crunchy granola, from the West Country acoustic folk-rock duo Show of Hands.  We're skating over the options, careful not to commit -- because I might not need someone, but if I did, maybe it would be you. If you were a Beatle in 1965, hedging your bets would be the obvious option. But there's a wistful element to this cover that cannot be denied:  We really could break through and make this thing happen, if only...  

Run For Your Life
Cover by the Razorbacks

Let's go down-and-dirty country for this bonus track, written with a cynical eye to the wider audience.  Yet let's be honest: John Lennon scared the bejesus out of us with this threatening track, taking us all to school.  Ohmigod did I not want to be castigated for falling short of his expectations. But Show of Hands gives us a little pickin' and grinnin' room to navigate....