I have long held it to be a covers truism that people who love covers are most compelled by musicians who can re-imagine a song in order to create something new. The whole point – I’ve said and written – of covering a song is to merge the acts of making and enjoying music in order to say something through song while also saying something about the song itself. Good covers discover or reveal. Good covers surprise.
The expectation that a cover should make something new, however, starts to feel unfair when one is attempting to evaluate covers of songs that have been covered as often as the sixteen Beatles songs on Keep Calm & Salute the Beatles. Covering the Beatles is a bit like taking a picture of THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA, an act that Don DeLillo describes not as capturing an image but maintaining one. What is there left to say, discover, or reveal about these songs beyond the tautological notion that they are good enough to be covered again and again?
Based on this album of acoustic covers turned in by a roster of mostly septuagenarian rocks stars, the answer to this question is “not much.” The album does very little to energize, complicate, arrange, or even interpret these sixteen songs. In fact, from its title to its execution, everything about this album seems to be about staying calm and acknowledging the Beatles as the rock and roll equivalent of a tourist destination that inspires parental nostalgia and filial boredom in equal measure. At least for this listener, calmness, comfort, and unadorned nostalgia are rarely the ingredients of a successful cover.
And yet, as I was preparing to write an actually negative review of the album, I kept finding myself singing along. I initially dismissed this as being solely about the original material: is it really that hard to get me to sing along to songs I’ve been singing along to for my entire life? However, as my fifth listen turned into my fifteenth, I realized that perhaps, for albums like this one, I’ve been asking the wrong questions. Perhaps the only criterion that matters for cover versions of songs that have been covered within an inch of their lives is whether or not you finish listening to the album as opposed to shutting it off and returning to the Beatles themselves. Even as I kept finding myself wanting to damn these renditions with faint praise and the albatross adjective “inoffensive,” I hadn’t once returned to the headwaters of the Fab Four.
Beyond not being truly awful, part of the reason I’ve continued to listen to the album is that it is an album, a fact that demonstrates a cohesive vision on the part of producer Billy Sherwood. Despite a roster of accomplished rock musicians ranging from Heart’s Ann Wilson to former Rascal Felix Cavaliere, Keep Calm is clearly Sherwood’s album: all sixteen songs are cut from the same prog-y, acoustic, vaguely Eastern cloth. At its worst, this sound feels safe and too calm; there are moments, even, where it feels like the vocalists are too old and out of practice to raise their voices. However, the sound is also one steeped in reverence that, while presenting initially as fairly generic easy listening, reveals more complexities with subsequent listens. What becomes clear eventually – a fact that all but negates my usual criteria – is that this album is really a tribute to the musicians assembled here. After all, Jack Bruce, who played bass in Cream and turns in an incredibly fragile “Eleanor Rigby,” passed away between the record’s creation and its release.
Because Sherwood – who joined Yes in 1997 and contributes a sincere and emotional “Something” here – has worked so hard to give every track the same sonic fingerprint, it’s hard to point to standouts. KC, from KC and the Sunshine Band, contributes a legitimately pretty and never dull version of “Let it Be.” Rascal Felix Cavaliere balances exasperation and wonder in his “Ticket to Ride.” Judy Collins’s “I’ll Follow the Sun” is plaintive and expansive. Leo Sayer’s “Hey Jude” sets out to be an actual anthem and, thanks to a deft little harmonica part, comes pretty close to hitting its mark. Still, even the highlights of the album work best as album tracks. If I want to listen to “Let it Be,” I will listen to the Beatles. Listening to KC’s version, in this context, is listening to something else.
And that’s the whole point. These sixteen covers ultimately cohere as a document that preserves an increasingly obscure cadre of musicians, most of whom have reached the average age of death for Americans who never lived like rock stars. The record reminds us that Classic Rock is not just a slowly expanding juggernaut radio format that will eventually include music from all of our childhoods, but something made by real humans who feel things, age, and eventually succumb. The album’s title isn’t just a cheeky attempt to cash in on a meme but an actual mission statement: when one realizes how long ago the Beatles were the Beatles, and how long ago parents and grandparents were screaming Beatles fans, there are legitimate reasons not to keep calm. The surprise that makes the album worth listening to has less to do with the songs themselves than it does the fragility of listening to, making, and loving music in the first place.
Keep Calm and Salute the Beatles tracklist:
1. Ann Wilson – Across the Universe
2. John Wetton – Penny Lane
3. Jack Bruce – Eleanor Rigby
4. Liz Madden – Blackbird
5. Andrew Gold – Norwegian Wood
6. Todd Rundgren – You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away
7. Helen Reddy – All You Need Is Love
8. Judy Collins – I’ll Follow the Sun
9. Howard Jones – And I Love Her
10. Felix Cavaliere – Ticket To Ride
11. KC of KC and the Sunshine Band – Let It Be
12. David Clayton-Thomas – Yesterday
13. Martha Davis – Nowhere Man
14. Stephen Bishop – All I’ve Got to Do
15. Billy Sherwood – Something
16. Leo Sayer – Hey Jude
17. Dale Bozzio – Can’t Buy Me Love (bonus track
18. Al Stewart – I Feel Fine (bonus track)