Various Artists - Stax Does The Beatles (2007)

Various Artists
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Last year it seemed another bi-annual cycle of Beatlemania had beset us with melodies turned commercial jingles and nostalgia rich with the faded scents of social revolution. One could convincingly argue that every two years since their 1970 swansong, Let It Be, has been one long Beatlemania revival. But, 2007 turned out to be arguably the biggest year yet for the post-retirement Beatles: Cirque De Soleil revealed its Beatles show, "Love"; Hollywood created the Oscar nominated Across The Universe; and even Las Vegas fave, Tom Jones, released an album of Beatles covers. Indie labels have also decided to feed this unquenchable beast with new collections of old material ranging from Jazz Up The Beatles to Beatles Blues-The Blues Meets The Beatles.

Last year it seemed another bi-annual cycle of Beatlemania had beset us with melodies turned commercial jingles and nostalgia rich with the faded scents of social revolution. One could convincingly argue that every two years since their 1970 swansong, Let It Be, has been one long Beatlemania revival. But, 2007 turned out to be arguably the biggest year yet for the post-retirement Beatles: Cirque De Soleil revealed its Beatles show, "Love"; Hollywood created the Oscar nominated Across The Universe; and even Las Vegas fave, Tom Jones, released an album of Beatles covers. Indie labels have also decided to feed this unquenchable beast with new collections of old material ranging from Jazz Up The Beatles to Beatles Blues-The Blues Meets The Beatles. Coming in at the 11th hour of the latest Beatles cycle, Stax/Concord has joined the festivities with a new collection of rare and unreleased material from the classic Stax roster of Memphis Soul's golden era. With this collection of misfires and underwhelming material, it appears that golden era had a little tarnish smartly kept hidden from view.

The alternative take of Otis Redding's hit version of "Daytrippers" is probably the most recognizable of this collection. I don't really know how one posthumously disses a legend, so I won't do so here. Let's just say there was a good reason the old Stax brass chose to be discriminating about releasing this rather fatigued take of their biggest money maker struggling through his smash hit. Songwriter/producer David Porter fares much better on his cover of "Help!" thanks to a fiery rhythm section. An anemic all instrumental cover of "Got To Get You Into My Life" makes me ache for someone-hell, anyone to add some vocals to this endless Karaoke cut. Steve Cropper's "With A Little Help From My Friends" has a whiff of a New Orleans funeral march to it, but strangely the drag pacing works thanks to some stunning electric guitar work. Against an overly grand supper club arrangement that's long on bombastic torch (please give the piano player a sedative) and short on subtleties, a shaky-voiced Carla Thomas essentially belts her way through the song with little care for the lyric with which she's been gifted. Booker T and the MGs and The Mar Keys pull off much more interesting covers of "Eleanor Rigby" and "Let It Be," respectively. Though I must admit that on most of these instrumental interludes, particularly on "Let It Be," "Michelle," and the Bar-kays version of "With A Little Help From My Friends," I can't help but feel like I'm listening to the Saturday Night Live band during the show's closing credits and commercial interludes. Too often, as in "Hey Jude," the Bar-Keys prove just as boring too.

Issac Hayes's epic "Something" is an 11 minute mess of a reading, and this is from a hardcore fan of Mr. Hayes's Black Moses days. The composition seems almost sacrilegiously sunny given the tune, bewildering in its soul pop meets psychedelic rock meets hill country folksy execution, and lacks a coherent focus in its orchestral goals. If I didn't know better I would believe that Isaac was on "something" when he arranged and produced this Coogi sweater version of a cashmere tune.

Saving graces on this set come from relatively unknown stars from the Stax rosters, voices eclipsed by the rough voice soul men and sweet girl next doors of the day. John Gary Williams' sugar voiced "My Sweet Lord" sublimely rests in an arrangement that has plenty in common with Edwin Hawkins "Oh, Happy Day" and the social justice yearnings of Donny Hathaway's "We Need You Right Now." Another shining moment is offered by falsetto-toned Reggie Milner in a Delfonics worthy cover of "And I Lover Her." Sadly, the Milner and Williams covers may have just been before their time, leaving especially Milner's obvious hit potential to the lost annals of music history. They are both welcome editions on this collection and maybe will usher in increased availability of both these artists' fine work. These relative unknowns provide some of the only true carats mined from this gold dust vault. If you want to hear Stax artists do something unexpected, check out the recently released Soulville sings Hitsville: Stax Sings the Songs of Motown Records. As for this set, right here? I say-whispering words of wisdom-let it be, let it be, let it be. Not recommended

--L. Michael Gipson

 
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