The World's Greatest Artists Sing The Songs of Paul McCartney: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

The producer Ralph Sall had an idea ten years ago or so: why not get some of the greatest musical talents of our time to pay tribute to Sir Paul McCartney by having them cover his songs? What could possibly go wrong?

With today's "phone it in" technology Sall figured he could record the backing tracks locally and then, if necessary, have the singers add their parts in their local or home studios and that is apparently how this 3 LP set (also available on CD and probably on iTunes) was produced.

Sall got McCartney's own stellar back up group, consisting of Rusty Anderson (the brunette) and Brian Ray (the blonde) on guitars, Paul "Wix" Wickens on keyboards and the monster drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr. to be the back up band on most tracks here.

Sall got the stars alright. Among them (in no particular order): Billy Joel, Barry Gibb, Bob Dylan, Steve Miller, Willie Nelson, Roger Daltry, Kiss, Jeff Lynne, The Cure, B.B. King, Toots Hibbert, Perry Farrell, Chrissie Hynde, Zander/Nielsen of Cheap Trick, Def Leopard, Dion, Yusef/Cat Stevens, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and Smokey Robinson. Great lineup, right?

Yes a great line-up and some interesting performances but for the most part, the only one having fun was the performer, having been given a back up bed so similar to the original recording that they had the pleasure of imagining themselves being Paul McCartney.

Most listeners will be left thinking "It sounds just like the original only someone else is singing and it's not Paul McCartney, so what good is this?"

What I was hoping for was a tribute to McCartney based upon sly re-imaginings of familiar songs but mostly what we get here are the old arrangements not as well played and with new vocals. As good as they are backing McCartney, having his group backing almost everyone here becomes monotonous after awhile, giving this an assembly-line like feel, especially since almost zero creativity or imagination went into most of the arrangements.

Top that off with genuinely offensive sonics on many (but not all) of the tracks and well... it makes for tough sledding (especially in Buffalo). To the producer's credit, most tracks have full credits listed on the triple-gatefold insides.

The album opens with Billy Joel growling with great intensity the great "Maybe I'm Amazed". This one lists four recording studios so I cut it some slack, but the resulting sound is edgy, harmonically bleak and generally gray and unpleasant sounding—particularly the drum sound and specifically the cymbals, which sound as if they were recorded on a Minidisc player. I kept thinking, given how carefully McCartney usually is about sound quality, what kind of tribute is this? Joel's high energy performance saves it.

Next up Bob Dylan croaks and warbles wonderfully "Things We Said Today" backed by his own uncredited "mystery group". Again the vocal recording and/or mix is just plain awful, larded with cheap and sloppily applied effects and "reverb" that makes Dylan sound as if he's singing inside a garbage pail. But when Bob sings "love is here to stay you believe it! Even with little left to his voice, he still knows how to sell it.

Nancy Wilson sings "Band on the Run" sounding much like McCartney. The arrangement follows the original, similar to how the back-up band performs it in concert with the original writer, while the recording is a "shtick drek" ("piece of shit" in Yiddish). The original is so well recorded. This is so inept and awful. Cymbals do not sound soft and sludgy like this!

Steve Miller does an admirable job on "Junior's Farm" reprising his double-tracked vocal sound and this one does take off but again, the arrangement brings nothing original to the tune. Somehow Yusuf/Cat Stevens brings something compelling to "The Long and Winding Road" even though he has to drop an octave in key spots because he's not able to hit some of the high notes.

Harry Connick, Jr. brings an appropriately sappy Broadway sensibility on both vocals and piano to "My Love" to open side 2. Then incredibly, the sonic fogs lifts, there's black to the background, some space behind the kick drum and instrumental focus and the sound finally goes from harmonic black and white-edness to something resembling a professional recording when Brian Wilson covers "Wanderlust" from Tug of War. I'm not saying the sound is stellar but it's not bad and here the arrangement has a distinct Wilsonian stamp complete with gorgeous harmonies. I applauded at the end.

Corinne Bailey Rae follows with slinky arrangement of "Bluebird" that surprised with a nicely recorded acoustic guitar on the left channel and some deft percussion sprinkled throughout. It's one of the set's most arresting tracks both musically and sonically.

Willie Nelson turns in a great behind-the-beat "Yesterday" and the vocal and guitar recording is among the sets most natural. Jeff Lynne keeps alive McCartney's original production on "Junk" by playing all of the instruments. Barry Gibb now 68, does a literal "When I'm 64" that adds little to the original though for some reason the sound is among the most transparent and spacious on the set. The young British singer Jamie McCullum does a nice turn on "Every Night" bringing to it the youthful energy McCartney brought to the original and making most of the other performers sound like what they are: old.

Kiss opens the second record with "Venus and Mars/Rock Show" mostly aping the original arrangement with Gene Simmons covering the vocal on "Venus and Mars" and Paul Stanley covering "Rock Show". The pace is sluggish and this one lacks the original's child-like, exuberant feel. Paul Rodgers wisely goes with the bluesy "Let Me Roll It" but again it sounds like the arrangement the backing band would play in concert for McCartney to sing.

I'm not going to cover the whole set play-by-play (even if that's what it's so far been). Instead here are the best of the rest: Chrissie Hynde's "Let It Be", Perry Farrell's "Got to Get You Into My Life", Dion's "Drive My Car", Smokey Robinson's "So Bad" (the guy's still got the greatest falsetto) and Toots Hibbert's "Come and Get It" (with Sly and Robbie).

So to summarize: most "tribute" albums disappoint and this one is no exception (a few that are exceptional: two Leonard Cohen tribute albums— I'm Your Fan and especially Tower of Song and the Kinks tribute album This Is Where I Belong, which is worth having just for Fountains of Wayne's cover of "Better Things").

The arrangements, such that there are, are unimaginative and mostly hew closely to the originals. While Abe Laboriel, Jr. is a great drummer, here he mostly phones in his parts, which is understandable: he has no one to provide the energy and spark since the singers later phone in their parts.

When you get to Alice Cooper's "Eleanor Rigby" you think "Gee, Alice is a far better singer than I gave him credit for being, but instead of duplicating George Martin's string arrangement, why not come up with something original?"

That's what I mostly thought throughout this overall dreary exercise. The 3 180 LPs were well-pressed, though I have no idea where and the vinyl mastering is also a mystery but I'd be surprised if it was anything other than CD resolution—or maybe the "mastered for iTunes" files. There was a "BGM" in the lead out groove area, which might stand for "Bernie Grundman Mastering" though I've never before seen that on a record mastered there. On the other hand, I'd want to maintain anonymity here too. As for the sound, well the word is "FEH"! This sprawling mess, though in parts inspired, is overall hardly a tribute to Paul McCartney, or to his creative genius.

If you want to watch a video about this record:

COMMENTS
Dpoggenburg's picture

Thanks for the timely review. For what it's worth, Rusty has brown hair and Brian is the blonde. Beatle fans are so frickin' anal...

Michael Fremer's picture
Fickst.
rakalm's picture

Glad I didn't, bought The New Basement Tapes instead, looks interesting, haven't played it yet.

Bigrasshopper's picture

Although it took me all of 5 seconds to pause, consider and skip past this on a list of new releases, I suppose a music critic might feel compelled to give the appearance of a fair hearing when so many notorious suspects conspire commit an obviously bad idea and botch it. In the movie Towering Inferno at least you get to watch flaming stars fall to their death, to bad this wasn't even that exciting. Actually, even at 9 years I recall wanting to be interested but feeling thwarted. I'm sorry you had to sit through it, and hope you didn't have to pay for it. Next Please.
Herbie Hancock's River The Joni letters is an example of a tribute that I enjoy going back to from time to time.
I'll have to check out Tower of Song.
Still, at least it's nice for frequent visitors to see that your willing to use the lower portions of your scale. How low can you go ? Or do we really want to know ? I think we do, from time to time.

Michael Fremer's picture
I bought this triple LP and it wasn't inexpensive. Worse, it didn't even include a download card but since I bought it on Amazon I think I get a free download so I'll take the few tracks I did like.
Bigrasshopper's picture

It's none of my business, but can you write off your reveiw purchases ? 16 out of 30 iTunes reviewers gave the album 2 stars or less out of 5. 12 gave it 4 or 5 stars. So if your going to unload it, do now while it's still dividing audiences.

vinyl listener's picture

:)

hi-fivinyljunkie's picture

Why listen to a tribute when you can listen to the original?

Nice to see some scores below 7/10.

hi-fivinyljunkie's picture

Why listen to a tribute when you can listen to the original?

Nice to see some scores below 7/10.

Martin's picture

Missed opportunity.
It could have been really, really good. Flashes of brilliance and a glimpse of what might have been and all that.
Loves Labours Lost.

Ask the artists if they'd like to give it a second shot?
At the same studio?
Bring their own band?
Have some fun?

J.D.'s picture

" ... hoping for was a tribute to McCartney based upon sly re-imaginings of familiar ... "

Right on the money with that, Mike. That's really the best kind of thing for a tribute or homage to hope for. Re-doing the greats, wagering against them at their own game, is a sure recipe for a dead-on-arrival project.

" ...top that off with genuinely offensive sonics..." Wow. Very concise summing up there. And coming from an analog man I think we all know exactly what that entails. Ugh.

" ...With today's "phone it in" technology Sall figured he could record the backing tracks locally and then, if necessary, have the singers add their parts in their local or home studios...
one lists four recording studios so I cut it some slack, but the resulting sound is edgy, harmonically bleak and generally gray..."

Hm, wonder if the various components-- rhythm section, bkgd vcls, lead or solo instruments... end up tuning-up their contribution in a project like this so they will stand out. Kind of like the loudness-wars producers tune up their full tracks to stand out on a radio or sound stream. It's all protools, so they have the complete ability at hand, and who's to blame an ambitious player or singer for wanting to stand out on the session ..?

Producers who are really good at this international, high-profile multi-studio kind of thing--- Trevor Horn, George Massenburg come to mind-- are all about making it seamless and organic sounding, an integrated musical piece. Not so easy, apparently.

Audiobill's picture

With name artists. What a waste!

StonedBeatles1's picture

The promo clip was more than I can handle. What a joke..

and that Brian Ray, such a Posier! Can't stand him..

thomoz's picture

I still have my "Listen To What The Man Said" cd from a decade ago. It's listenable in spots, like the Matthew Sweet track.

Yovra's picture

....and already concluded that it isn't worth my money. Sometimes it was as af no time was spent re-thinking the original arrangement and it makes it sound like an expensive karaoke with the odd original sound. Corinne Bailey Rae's Bluebird is a nice exception and thanks to iTunes I can buy that track without having to sit through The Cure working their way through "Hello Goodbye" or Booker T sounding like a lounge-organist in his version of Can't Buy Me Love....

azmoon's picture

Not sure why anyone thinks that is a "Paul Song". Only solo voice on that recording is John's. The rest is a duet.

Rudy's picture

When I saw that it was the same backing band on most tracks, I immediately thought "Paul McCartney Karaoke Night." The only one laughing here is Paul, I'm sure, all the way to the bank with what little royalties the label will let trickle down to him. I agree with all the comments and the review--a tribute captures the spirit of the original, but does not copy it. Even there, tribute albums tend to be uneven affairs anyway. I admit to not being a huge McCartney fan but, if I want to listen to some Paulie, dang it, I'm going to get out some of my rekkids and play the real thing!

While this isn't a CD review, I had to say this anyway. This is yet another of those releases where various retailers offer different bonus tracks. When is that insanity going to end? Maybe that's what *cough* torrents *cough* are for after all...

tlat.com's picture

Mikey I agree, most tribute leave a lot to be desired. Some of the best, IMO, are the MOJO Mag. free CD releases (and a few avail. on LP). THe two part tribute to The Bealtes LP, a Pink Floyd CD also released on Vinyl, a Rolling Stones and a fantastic Muddy Waters come to mind. The artists involved are some that I've never heard and are so good that i'm forced to investigate more of their work. The arrangements are usually very creative and give the original's a run for the money....MOJO tribute CD's worth hearing....and they didn't have to pay me to say that.

vinyl_blues's picture

I agree it's a shame so many tracks are recorded with Paul's band and not musicians of the vocalist's choosing. And, yes, there is some mediocrity here.

But I couldn't help enjoy this album. At least a third of the tracks I found to be an excellent rendition. I knew this album would be a mixed bag, but I'm still glad I own this beautiful vinyl set and am happy to hear so many artists I love playing Paul's music.

Sorry to not be more critical, but I had a splendid time listening to this record.

ZackHarris's picture

What I was hoping for was a tribute to McCartney based upon sly re-imaginings of familiar songs but mostly what we get here are the old arrangements not as well played and with new vocals. As good as they are backing McCartney, having his group backing almost everyone here becomes monotonous after a while, giving this an assembly-line-like feel, especially since almost zero patio contractors Chattanooga creativity or imagination went into most of the arrangements.

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