Monday, June 30, 2008

Review: Various Artists "Stax Does the Beatles"

Stax Records was one of the most important record companies in shaping the soul music of the sixties with a distinctive sound. Their records exemplified southern soul and took a core group of musicians to the airwaves. And while Beatles songs have been covered hundreds of times, the Stax interpretations are especially good. (Click on the album art for a sample.)

Otis Redding starts the compilation with an alternate version of "Day Tripper." I've already expressed my love for Redding before and he does not disappoint. He had an incredible ability to take nearly any song and make it his own.

The next song, however, takes the record to the next level. David Porter, a member of the Stax house band and a song writer (mainly with Issac Hayes), covers "Help!" with a passion which makes me wonder why he was not a bigger solo star. The horns, as in much of the Stax records, provide energy which can easily make a lesser singer look bad in comparison. But Porter is able to pull off the urgency of Lennon's original version and match the energy of the backing band. "Help!" never had as much of a groove as this. The Motown-esqe background singers also bring a nice touch.

Booker T & the MG's add four songs to the mix. While important to Stax as a house band, the MG's also earned their own hits, especially with "Green Onions." Here they give the instrumental treatment to Beatles songs. "Got to Get You into My Life" grooves along, fun, but not awe-inspiring. "Eleanor Rigby" is nearly psychedelic in its funk treatment and plays like an instrumental version of a moody Sly and the Family Stone. "Michelle" sounds like a really cool version of "Spooky" by Classics IV. The Beatles' version of "Michelle" is one of their prettier songs, one of my favorites, and Booker T & the MG's do a good job matching it. Their final song, "Lady Madonna," gets Green Onion-ified. The slowed down pace is a nice change and allows more space for the musicians to play around.

And speaking of Booker T & the MG's, Steve Cropper also gets a solo song on the compilation. His version of "With a Little Help from My Friends" owes a lot to Joe Cocker's version with the different tempo and time signature. It was released a year later than Cocker's. But unlike that version, Cropper's is completely instrumental, relying on his excellent guitar playing. And horns were added in the place of background vocals, giving Cropper's version a distinct sound. The call and answer between Cropper's guitar and a muted trumpet are particularly good.

Probably the worst song on the whole record belongs to Carla Thomas' live "Yesterday." She is a very good singer, but the backing band kills it. What makes the original "Yesterday" beautiful, in my opinion, is the sparseness of the song. While dramatic with the orchestra, the simple arrangement allows the meaning of the words, the resigned depression of losing a loved one and trying to figure out the relationship (and life), room to resonate. However, the multiple musicians, including horns, guitars and piano, causes that to be lost and Thomas' vocals, while mostly good, just bring empty dramatising. And one of the instruments hits a wrong chord at the beginning of the song (which annoys me every time I hear it). Plus, the song is live, so you get to hear the band work against the background of fancily people (I can only imagine) drinking wine and conversing with each other, generally ignoring the background music.

The saxophone dominated Mar-Keys cover of "Let It Be" is only alright. But the next song remains just too cool for its nearly 12 minutes. That would be Isaac Hayes' "Something." Of course known as Chef from South Park and from the immensely popular Shaft soundtrack, Hayes played in the Bar-Keys and wrote songs for Stax. It takes nearly two-and-a-half minutes to get into the lyrics. The opening is a jazzy piano, eventually joined by drums and horns, background singers teasing the song and a transformation to soul by the time Hayes begins. He sounds almost reluctant to sing about his love, gains the confidence (or whatever you want to call it), refrains to being reluctant and then the song takes off. It is beautifully arranged and a real gem.

Another version of "Yesterday" is one of the three songs the Bar-Kays get. Their instrumental is much better than Carla Thomas'. They play it with more changes than the original, impressive in that the song still runs and under 3:30. From urgent to mellow to straight rocking out, the Bar-Kays get everything out of "Yesterday" you could ask for. And the trumpet solo takes the cake (which is a pretty mean thing to do if done literally...people enjoy cake). They also do a heavy soul'd out version of "With a Little Help from My Friends." It is similar to Joe Cocker's and Steve Cropper's, but the drums really steal the show and there is a break where they nearly go into a Chambers Brothers psychedelic-soul freak out. Their final song is "Hey Jude." It essentially sticks to the Beatles original with different instrumentation. Again, the trumpet really makes the track shine. It could maybe have been shortened (over six minutes long) without losing anything important.

Reggie Milner drastically reinterprets "And I Love Her" giving it a funky edge which could never have been imagined to be lurking in the Beatles acoustic original. You can not even tell what song it is unless you have been told in advance. Super super funky, soulful perfection.

And John Gary Williams funkifies, though in a mellow way, "My Sweet Lord," the solo George Harrison single. Of course, I have a problem with a Beatles compilation including solo tracks, but whatever. The song is nice and the talking break is interesting.

So, "Stax Does the Beatles" successfully combines two of the most influential musical sounds in history, that of the Beatles and of Stax Records, into unique sounding songs which provide a new appreciation for the genius and talent of both. If you like soul, the Beatles or funk, you will enjoy this. Not everybody can do Beatles songs as well as the originals, or even decently for that matter (here's looking at you U2), but the compilation manages to collect a good number of very good covers.

Other Cool Stuff to Check Out:

Stax 50: A 50th Anniversary Celebration by Various Artists (2007): A good history of Stax Records.

The Very Best of Sam & Dave by Sam & Dave (1995): One of the best Stax groups with plenty of hits.

Across the Universe Soundtrack (Deluxe) by Various Artists (2007): The soundtrack to the movie of the same name, contains some very good Beatles covers and some not so good ones.

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