This time it was my turn to give Robby an assignment, and I chose the first CD of a Paul McCartney tribute album released late last year. (You can probably guess what his second assignment will be.) Like many tribute albums, it was a pretty mixed bag. As I listened, I found the songs fell into a few different buckets for me:
Legends Who Have Ruined Their Voices
- Billy Joel – Maybe I’m Amazed – On Billy Joel’s first album, he sounded like he wanted so badly to be Paul McCartney, and sometimes he came pretty close. Thus, the idea of him singing “Maybe I’m Amazed” seemed perfect to me, and for the first two lines, it is. Then he dips down into this gravelly Louis Armstrong impression (Billy Joel Armstrong, perhaps?) and rides it out for the rest of the song. I would have loved to hear Cold Spring Harbor Billy Joel sing “Maybe I’m Amazed”, but this one? Less so. It still makes me happy, but I wish he hadn’t waited so long.
- Bob Dylan – Things We Said Today – On the other hand, the cup of gravel Billy Joel drank doesn’t come close to comparing with the five-gallon vat Bob Dylan seems to have consumed. I’m a big Dylan fan, but I found this just painful to listen to.
- Roger Daltrey – Helter Skelter – “I’ve got blisters on my larynx!” Who megafan Trrish tells me that Roger gets nodules on his vocal cords, and periodically he has to get surgery to have them removed. Time to head back to the doc, Roger.
- (To a lesser extent) Brian Wilson – Wanderlust – Not only has Wilson lived some pretty hard years, he also made music in his youth that was just made of youth. Tough setup for aging. He doesn’t (and can’t) sound the way he once did, but his version of this obscure song is rather lovely.
Stars Who Still Sound Fine, But Make No Difference
- Heart – Band On The Run – Ann and Nancy still sound great. This song, however, like a lot of the songs on this disc, is faithful to the point of karaoke. So while it’s fun to hear their voice in place of Paul and Linda’s, there’s not much more to it than that.
- Paul Rodgers – Let Me Roll It – Same deal here. It’s a novelty to hear Rodgers on this vocal, but otherwise it is an extremely straight reading of the song.
- Corinne Bailey Rae – Bluebird – Rae sounds lovely on this track, but again, there doesn’t seem to be much interpretation involved.
- Def Leppard – Helen Wheels – Maybe there was a rule that if you were covering something from Band On The Run, no alterations were allowed? I’m a fan of early Def Leppard (they lost me permanently at “Let’s Get Rocked”), but here they sound like they could be any bar band.
Artists Who Bring Something Special
- Steve Miller – Junior’s Farm – Steve Miller is a perfect choice for “Junior’s Farm”, because “Junior’s Farm” might as well be a Steve Miller song already. The poker man, the Eskimo, the sea lion, “he bought a gee-gee” — they fit in perfectly with the pompatus of love, the midnight toker, the crate of papayas, and Billy Mack, who knows exactly what the facts is. It’s not that he sings it any differently, it’s just that he’s so well cast.
- Kiss – Venus And Mars/Rock Show – Just having Kiss do this song takes it out of the bouncy realm of the original. It’s also a fun idea to have Simmons do the initial, slow part, and then have Stanley come in on the more rockin’ part. Despite the fact that the tempo, instrumentation, etc. are identical to the original, the silliness of Kiss feels qualitatively different from the silliness of McCartney on the silly parts, and they bring a lot more rock crunch to the rockin’ parts.
- Jamie Cullum – Every Night – I had never heard of Cullum before, but I think I need to find out more. I was already a big fan of this song, but Cullum’s reading of it is terrific, especially the jazzy vocal improvisation at the end.
Poignant Songs About Change
- Yusuf/Cat Stevens – The Long And Winding Road – McCartney wrote many of these songs in his twenties, and yet some of them have this remarkable melancholy quality, wistful about the passage of time over years and decades. That feeling gets amplified when older artists sing these songs, especially artists who have gone through a lot of changes themselves. Yusuf’s voice doesn’t sound identical to the Cat Stevens days, but it evokes that young man in the 70s who had such a long and winding road ahead of him. “You left me standing here, a long long time ago,” he sings, but really, it’s he who left us. I never thought I’d hear that sweet voice sing a secular song again. It’s good to have him back.
- Willie Nelson – Yesterday – I’ve never been a Willie Nelson fan at all, but his worn, weathered voice brings a new tone to this song, a sense of regret that goes well beyond the day before. I also appreciated that he was willing to bring different instrumentation to the backing track — the harmonica is perfect.
- Jeff Lynne – Junk – This is a tremendously underrated McCartney song to begin with, and Lynne does a masterful job at bringing out its quiet sense of loss.
Covers That Are Just Bad
- Barry Gibb – When I’m 64 – Paul is cute and charming enough to pull off even a song this twee. Barry Gibb commands no such sway, at least not over me.
- The Cure feat. James McCartney – Hello Goodbye – Boy, I like The Cure a lot, but I sure do not like this cover. I mean, I’m glad Robert Smith isn’t so down anymore, but his vocal tone is a terrible match for this song, he doesn’t sound all that committed to it, and I can’t hear James McCartney at all, not that I know it would help if I could. Also, changing the chant at the end to “aloha”… just stop. Sounds like Smith has gotten some great antidepressants on board and spent some time in Hawaii, but he’s not doing us any favors here.
- Harry Connick, Jr. – My Love – Ugh, the worst of the worst. Connick sounds like he’s half-asleep, and the awake part isn’t helping either. His career is based on being a second-rate Sinatra in the first place, but here he sounds like Rick Moranis imitating Perry Como. On the other hand, he sure picked the right song.