(Artists: U2, R.E.M., Christina Aguilera, Aerosmith ft. Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars, Lenny Kravitz, Los Lonely Boys, Avril Lavigne, Jack Johnson, Corinne Bailey Rae, Big and Rich, Jackson Browne, Black Eyed Peas, Green Day, etc.)
Since all proceeds from the sale of Instant Karma, the new John Lennon tribute album, go to support Amnesty International’s work in Darfur and other regions, it’s difficult as a critic to dissuade the readers of this site from purchasing it. As a musical document, the album is uneven and a little uninspired, but not nearly as bad as it could have been. What the listener is left with, after slogging through both discs, is a stronger appreciation for John Lennon as a melodist. The melodies to “Mother,” “Imagine,” and “Nobody Told Me,” among others, are as infectious and affecting as they were decades ago.
The album’s first disc begins with U2’s version of Instant Karma, a cover that lacks the verve and bite of the original, turning Lennon’s kick-in-the-head idea of instant karma into a solemn exercise in consciousness-raising. The cover of #9 Dream by R.E.M. that follows is perhaps the best song on the album – mostly because, as bold as it sounds, it’s better than the original. While Lennon sounded a little lost in the song’s loopy lyrics and nonsense chorus, Michael Stipe takes to the material like he worships the mystery in lines like “Took a walk down the street through heat-whispered trees.”
Aerosmith and the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars’ version of Give Peace a Chance is quite awful. It’s overproduced, over-sung (At this point, Steven Tyler has pretty much lost every rock and roll instinct he ever had), and it botches one of the most rousing choruses in rock music. Why the two groups felt the need to add guitar licks and a Ladysmith Black Mambazo-like chant to the original’s bare bones brilliance escapes me. Lenny Kravitz’s version of Cold Turkey turns the original skeletal junkie blues into something resembling the theme to a blaxploitation movie, a bizarre choice made mostly to distract the listener from the fact that Kravitz can’t summon up half the pain found in Lennon’s original performance.
Two surprises are Christina Aguilera’s version of Mother and Corinne Bailey Rae’s cover of I’m Losing You. Both artists bring real emotion to the performances, and if the results aren’t brilliant, they’re certainly compelling. Spotting Aguilera’s name on the back of the CD, I thought the worst, but she keeps her vocal gymnastics to a minimum and focuses on the song’s strong melody. As I mentioned before, the real star of Aguilera’s cover may be Mother’s melody, but The Flaming Lips cover of Double Fantasy’s (Just Like) Starting Over is gorgeous and the song’s sad yet hopeful tone is a perfect fit for the band. The Postal Service’s version of Grow Old with Me, however, is a wisp of a song and cheesy to boot. Ben Harper’s version of Beautiful Boy is pleasant, skating nicely the line between sweet and sappy. Hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu’s version of Watching the Wheels is a messy mix of dub reggae sound effects and pointless Jamaican patois.
Between Instant Karma’s two discs, there might be one decent tribute album. Much like the I Am Sam soundtrack, which featured newer artists covering Beatles songs, Instant Karma is going to attract a lot of instant goodwill, simply because of the songs featured. People love and know these songs like they are old friends, and if Avril Lavigne doesn’t completely botch Imagine (which she doesn’t), some of the spirit of hearing Lennon’s version is going to spill over. This is the key to enjoying an album like this: beneath even the worst covers lies the memory of a brilliant song and the moments you’ve shared with it throughout your life. And the less the artist gets in the way of that memory, the better.
TrackList: Disc 1 = Instant Karma- U2, #9 Dream – R.E.M., Mother- Christina Aguilera, Aerosmith ft. Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars- Give Peace A Chance, Lenny Kravitz – Cold Turkey, Los Lonely Boys-Whatever Gets You Through the Night, Corinne Bailey Rae – I’m Losing You, Jacob Dylan ft. Dhani Harrison – Gimme Some Truth, Jackson Browne – Oh, My Love, Avril Lavigne – Imagine, Big and Rich – Nobody Told Me, Youssou N’Dour- Jealous Guy.
Disc 2 = Green Day – Working Class Hero, Black Eyed Peas – Power to the People, Jack Johnson – Imagine, Ben Harper – Beautiful Boy, Snow Patrol – Isolation, Matisyahu – Watching the Wheels, Postal Service – Grow Old with Me, Jaguares – Gimme Some Truth, The Flaming Lips – (Just Like) Starting Over, Jack’s Mannequin ft. Mick Fleetwood – God, Regina Spektor – Real Love.
– Dan Krow