YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Rock 'n' 'Soul' music

Fourteen acts take a fresh run at the Beatles' 40-year-old 'Rubber Soul' album.

October 23, 2005|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

JIM SAMPAS, the producer of a new tribute album to the Beatles' "Rubber Soul," was going through the recordings made for the project -- "Drive My Car" by the Donnas, "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" by the Fiery Furnaces, "What Goes On" by Sufjan Stevens -- when he came to "Nowhere Man" by the Minnesota duo Low, with Mimi Parker's multitracked vocal and a Spector drum beat floating in a muffled, wintry atmosphere.

"It's so spare, I had a panic," Sampas said. "I was like, 'Oh, my God, this doesn't fit in.' ... But they said, 'Think Nina Simone, that's what we were going for.' I listened to it again and I totally got it. And then when you put it in the sequence of the record it works really well."

That was the closest call Sampas had in assembling his new pride and joy, "This Bird Has Flown: A 40th Anniversary Tribute to the Beatles' Rubber Soul." Due in stores Tuesday from Razor & Tie Records, the collection -- based on the original 14-song British release -- puts what he calls "the most influential album of all time" in the hands of a bunch of young alternative artists, including Nellie McKay, Mindy Smith, Ben Kweller, et al.

"I definitely wanted it to be something very youthful," Sampas said. "I wanted to show another side of the songs through this youthful music."

For all the superlatives accorded 1967's "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," there's a school of thought that places 1965's "Rubber Soul" at the pinnacle of the Beatles' output.

If nothing else, it's certainly their key transitional work.

The lyrics introduced adult complexities, darkness, ambiguity and mystery, while the music jettisoned adolescent effervescence in favor of rich, almost rustic textures and lean arrangements, exotic instruments and a new sophistication in melody and harmony.

"It's the first sort of uniform album, the songs really go together well, and it just has such a vibe," said pop wonder-kid Kweller, who took advantage of the "no rules" assignment by recording "Wait" in the Beatles' early stereo style, with all the vocals in one speaker.

"And the album cover, with them wearing leather and fringe, and the haircuts and the trees in the background, it's one of those perfect packages where it matches the music," added Kweller, 24. "There was like a very earthy quality to the whole album."

McKay, who transformed George Harrison's "If I Needed Someone" into a quirky piece of jazz cabaret with a hint of Astrud Gilberto, said the Beatles album "combines the simplicity of the earlier stuff, just the directness of it, with where they were headed in terms of different ways of approaching the music.

"You heard their sense of joy when they made music, and you try to do the same," the 21-year-old added.

Not a fan of tributes?

TRIBUTE albums have become pop-music's dripping faucet. Nobody really wants them, they're wasteful and usually annoying, and they're all but impossible to stop. But even before "This Bird Has Flown," Sampas had a knack for standing out from the pack.

His first tribute-album undertaking was "kicks joy darkness," a 1997 salute to Jack Kerouac. Sampas' aunt, the late Stella Sampas, was the poet's widow, and the producer's idea for a mix of readings and music attracted contributions from Michael Stipe, Eddie Vedder, Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp, among others.

Sampas followed that in 2000 with "Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska," with Chrissie Hynde, Los Lobos and others recording their takes on four-track, as Springsteen had done on his uncompromising 1982 look at America's desperate and dispossessed.

"It's funny. I'm not even really a big fan of tribute albums," said the Boston-based Sampas, 40. "I think the problem with a lot of them is that they're a little bit scattered. Individually, maybe, tracks sound OK, but oftentimes they're sort of phoned-in performances.

"If I can get artists really passionate about a project because of a work's merit, you get much more continuity. I'm very fascinated by a transitional period in a person's work and also how the work has influenced so many other people. But with all that said I try to bear in mind that this is entertainment. What it really comes down to is, is it going to be entertaining?"

That's where Sampas' selection of artists come in, with performances ranging from faithful (the Donnas, Dar Williams) to downright wiggy. The Fiery Furnaces tap "Rubber Soul's" inner Dylan, Stevens deconstructs Ringo, and McKay brings in her touch of Peggy Lee. "I just wanted it to be different," says McKay. "I think some people can pull off doing stuff in the same style as the Beatles, but I really felt I had to take it away from what they did."

Los Angeles Times Articles