Forty years ago this month, The Beatles began recording their understated and seminal album, “Rubber Soul”. In honor of that momentous event, Razor & Tie has released a tribute album, “This Bird Has Flown” (named after the alternate title to “Norwegian Wood”), featuring a handful of rising talents of alternative fare (from Ben Lee to Low). Sadly, the 14 cover songs that comprise the album offer little tribute to either the listener or the actual 1965 Beatles classic.
The year 1965 was a pivotal turning point for The Beatles; after releasing their stock bubble-gum movie “Help!”, the band produced the incredibly innovative and original “Rubber Soul” in December. The Beatles got everything just right on this record. As opposed to their earlier albums, which had been composed of catchy, agreeable hits, “Rubber Soul” was their first cohesive work of art (possibly thanks to some advice they had received from Bob Dylan), bridging the gap between early 60s pop and late 60s psychedelic rock.
Collectively, it is an album dealing with love and relationships. There are many masterpieces: “I’m Looking Through You,” written by Paul McCartney after his relationship with Jane Asher (which is chronicled throughout the album) had ended; and John Lennon’s lyrical “In My Life,” a dreamy introspective. With songs that flow vocally and thematically, the esteemed record is the epitome of a well-crafted album.
And therein lies the problem with “This Bird Has Flown”. Even if these artists had recorded wonderful interpretations of each song, the original’s eloquent unity would still have been lost. The eclectic performers on “This Bird Has Flown” simply aren’t The Beatles. Nor would they ever claim to be. Most of the artists ignore their signature sound and end up performing the covers exactly as The Beatles did forty years ago — in regurgitating The Beatles’ sound, the cover-artists only reveal their shortcomings.
The Donnas cover of “Drive My Car” sounds simply like singer Brett Anderson’s vocals over The Beatles’ instrumentation. At the same time, Yonder Mountain String Band does a weak imitation of “Think for Yourself,” choosing to steal everything from the original, from the rhythmic guitar line to the carefree melodic harmonies.
There are a few glimmers on this contrived remake, namely Sufjan Stevens’ stand-out performance on “What Goes On.” Stevens removes the song of its original country twang, preferring to supplement the lyrics with jubilant choral chants, a medley of strings and woodwind and an uncharacteristic but well-executed pulsating guitar line. Following in this vein is Ted Leo’s version of “I’m Looking Through You.” He takes a near-perfect Beatles classic and manages to revitalize the song with a sense of enthused urgency.
However, other attempts at reinvention aren’t as successful. The Fiery Furnaces add their typically bizarre synth-pop to “Norwegian Wood,” and the song devolves into an eerily violent misstep. Low’s take on “Nowhere Man” follows suit. After stripping the song of its essential instrumental composition, Low leaves the listener with empty harmonies, jarred by a relentlessly pounding bass.
The overall disappointment of “This Bird Has Flown” is a testament to the impact and longevity of the Beatles’ recording. These songs aren’t necessarily bad, but taken as a whole, they pale in comparison to the luminary original. We all love The Beatles and certainly want to celebrate the anniversary of a classic, but this collection hardly does it justice.