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The 2013 American Idol Songbook--March 20, Top 10 Finalists Sing the Lennon & McCartney Songbook
For the first time, I am reviewing the results of an Idol tradition that was not broadcast live last year—Lennon & McCartney night. Likely a by-product of the Idol producers’ ties to Sony, which owns the two main Beatles songwriters’ catalogue, the concept seems like a good idea at first glance. After all, the Beatles changed the musical landscape of much of the world in the 1960s by turning rock ‘n’ roll, hitherto a catch-all term for rhythmic popular music when bought by white teenagers, into rock music, a multifaceted form of musical expression dominated by the singer-songwriter and his or her band. Though the songs were rarely collaborations beyond McCartney or Lennon adding a finishing touch or two to one another’s songs, Lennon and McCartney had an agreement with Dick Jacobs’s Northern Songs to share profits on anything the two wrote for the band. Except for George Harrison’s sparser contributions (e.g. “Something”) and a handful of Ringo Starr compositions, most of the Beatles’ output is thus fair game for this recurring theme night. The lack of a bona fide rock enthusiast in season 12, however, made for a somewhat unpredictable night, and cultural and generational differences led to many of tonight’s contestants performing what was actually brand-new material to them. As judge Mariah Carey repeatedly pointed out, the fame of these songs can make a botched cover particularly embarrassing, and there were indeed times when it simply didn’t work. The most successful performers of the night either chose to keep it more or less in the original style, as Angie, Candice, and Kree did, or made tasteful adjustments to bring it into their own wheelhouse, as Amber, Burnell, and even dark horse Janelle did. Devin, Lazaro, and Paul got mixed results due to a combination of continuing identity crises, personality conflicts with opinionated but creative mentor Jimmy Iovine, and the usual struggle to find a balance between their own style and the Beatles mystique that hovers around every song available for the night.
Amber Holcomb – “She’s Leaving Home” (Beatles) – Advanced
“She’s Leaving Home” was inspired by the true story of a runaway’s rediscovery by her parents as interpreted in the British tabloid The Daily Mirror. The girl’s romance with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks and the parents’ speculation on whether they smothered her in suburban propriety all struck a chord for Lennon and McCartney, both of whose working-class backgrounds led them to identify heavily with the boy to whom the girl ran away. The two worked together closely on the song for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), using their harmonies to create an imaginary dialogue between teenager and parents, and penning an impressionist melody worthy of Debussy to heighten the drama and pull the listener in. The song, accompanied by harpist Sheila Bromberg on an album where it was somewhat overshadowed by present company, became something of a cult hit. As renditions by Syreeta Wright (produced by then-boyfriend Stevie Wonder in 1972) and Al Jarreau (1978’s All Fly Home) showed, the song’s moody melody turned out to be perfect for intimate jazz-pop versions. Amber, who professes to not have heard the song before, wound up creating something akin to the aforementioned jazz covers in a return to the territory she excelled in on “My Funny Valentine” (again, go back to my first entry this year to see the potential therein). What Randy puzzled over in Amber’s putting in variations after a “straight” verse is in fact the essence of what a jazz cover is, but the warmth of her voice keeps the proceedings from getting too avant-garde for Idol audiences. This performance seems utterly underrated by judges and listeners alike, perhaps because there are so many different fan groups that feel their own style is being stretched too far in the “wrong” direction when that very eclecticism is what makes Amber such a creative performer. Previous weeks may have shown why Amber is a crowd-pleaser, but this shows me that Amber is a true, original artist, worthy of the legacy of the immortal band she covers here.
Angie Miller – “Yesterday” (Beatles) – Advanced
“Yesterday,” a song famous for its innumerable covers, started off with a “dummy lyric” as many songs do. McCartney, fearing a melody he dreamed might have been intentionally plagiarized, said he came up with gibberish about “scrambled eggs” and so forth to hold down the song until he could confirm that he wouldn’t be sued upon the song’s release. Ultimately, that haunting and vaguely Elizabethan melody was hammered out with the poetry we now know and recorded in a few takes with just McCartney’s voice and a string section for the soundtrack of the Fab Four’s 1965 comedy Help! Putting it out as a solo single (indeed, it was offered to Rolling Stones protégé Chris Farlowe for such a purpose) would have reflected the reality of recording but was nixed partly to avoid alienating the rest of the band, whose image nevertheless didn’t quite square with the contemplative feel of “Yesterday.” Part of the reason that covers abounded over the years is that the song was so simple in its beauty, at heart a kind of modern folk song ready to be shaped to any style. Angie takes a standard pop approach similar to McCartney’s original, but she does work her own runs into the song to accent the seamless transitions the Beatles so excelled at writing. She’s improving in her ability to convey real vulnerability amid the confident bluster of her high notes, and “Yesterday” will definitely go down as one of the highlights of Beatles night. Angie is one of those polarizing artists whose singing and stage presence seem to strike viewers as either possessed with dazzling purity of voice and spirit or smacking of the artifice of a “beauty pageant” performer, as Jimmy so trenchantly observed the previous week. As a neutral arbiter between people who like their music raw and those who like it polished, I think she delivers a polished performance well in a way that appeals to the latter group, and that seems to be her ultimate ambition.
Burnell Taylor – “Let It Be” (Beatles) – Advanced
No, McCartney did not write “Let It Be” as a religious song. One of the first things those researching the inspirations for Beatles songs find out is that McCartney’s mother Mary, who died when he was fourteen but left a very warm, calming impression on him, is the “Mother Mary” mentioned here. Of course, McCartney’s idealistic lyrics and the emotional delivery he gave in the studio on “Let It Be,” on both the chart-topping single version and the one from the eponymous and final 1970 album, all had a very spiritual air that Lennon compared in a 1980 Playboy interview to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water.” McCartney said it came to him in a dream while writing for 1968’s self-titled “White Album,” but the sentiments had a universal appeal that lent the song well to gospel covers. Burnell does such a gospel cover with appropriate backing, and he does his best to project gravitas with his quirky voice. The energy is all there, though it was something of a predictable choice. Burnell was new to the song, but like many new to the entire output of the Beatles, he connected to it immediately without the need for heavy background or context. It’s that sort of song that will outlast, if it’s possible, even the fame of its creator, and Burnell fortuitously chose well when (or if) he chose it to sing.
Candice Glover – “Come Together” (Beatles) – Advanced
“Come Together,” in all its strange, self-deprecatory glory, was quintessential Lennon. Though many have been led down the garden path to “psychoanalyze Lennon,” as Jimmy cautioned Candice not to do while practicing the song, the best guess is probably, like the apparent inspiration in Timothy Leary’s 1969 campaign against Reagan for governor, drugs. It was that time when everything seemed to have trippy double meanings, and Lennon was going to have fun writing the wackiest things he possibly could for Abbey Road, the last Beatles album to be recorded but the second-to-last released in 1969. The band did play together during recording, though Lennon sang, and the result was another chart-topping single in a career where they were almost par for the course. Morris Levy, a publishing and recording mogul with well-known mob ties and a tendency to put his name on credits as collateral, filed a dubious lawsuit in the mid-1970s on behalf of Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me,” which was ultimately settled despite being based on little more than chord changes and one line about “old flat-top.” Unencumbered by this somewhat hypocritical legal challenge, the song was covered exceptionally well by Aerosmith on the soundtrack of one of the most disastrous musicals of all time, the 1978 film of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The blues qualities that Aerosmith were drawn to (courtesy of the Berry influence that inspired the lawsuit) are the very ones that Candice makes come alive. After several ballads seared to perfection by Candice’s stellar voice, everyone seemed to be clamoring for something up-tempo, and she delivers. This ferocious, electrifying cover was so out of this world that all my praise for the rougher side of the artist cannot compare to the shot below of Keith Urban mouthing along to every word. That about sums up the way she dominated the night.
Devin Velez – “The Long and Winding Road” (Beatles) – Advanced
“The Long and Winding Road” was a product of the maelstrom of argument and ego clashes that drove the Beatles apart, and ultimately those same destructive forces affected its recording. McCartney drew on the lonely, windswept landscapes and highways of Scotland as well as his own anxieties over the romantic and business controversies that often led to him feeling like the band’s babysitter when he really just wanted to entertain. Like many tracks on Let It Be, the record was essentially a solo effort. As each singer recorded their own solo tracks with Ringo drums added in separately, Phil Spector was brought in to help with the mixing. A notorious control freak, for lack of a better word, Spector was already mired in the drug problems and psychiatric issues that would derail both his career and his marriage. Spector insisted on making so many changes to the final product that he became more producer than mixer on the album, to the point where McCartney was furious and threatened legal action over a version of “The Long and Winding Road” that he thought had become too gooey and over-the-top, too much like the Wall of Sound Spector had perfected for American pop groups. Even with a somewhat less intimate setting than McCartney wanted, the song ended the Beatles’ American career on a chart-topping note, and his haunting melody remains an unforgettable part of his legacy to popular music. Will Young and Gareth Gates, as a matter of fact, recorded a superb cover in 2002 after winning the first season of Pop Idol, American Idol’s British inspiration. Thus reaching back unwittingly into the history of the Idol franchise, Devin is at first a little boring in his middle-of-the-road charm, a little like the sort of artist that would have been comfortable with Spector’s glossy overlay. However, Devin grows on me as he makes increasingly mature choices in what he calls an effort to do a “Brian McKnight” or “Stevie Wonder” version, a sort of R&B ballad emphasizing the chord changes McCartney built into the song. Not every run is well-placed, and the general atmosphere of the cover will doubtless incense many Beatlemaniacs, but he at least put some effort into a relatively original cover, something few contestants dare to do with votes at stake. It takes guts, and it pays off better than some other efforts I’ve heard.
Janelle Arthur – “I Will” (Beatles) – Advanced
“I Will” is a simple, pretty love song. It was the stereotypical McCartney song, a midtempo romp that would have been at home on the early albums but was actually from The Beatles (the 1968 White Album). Though there was none of the experimentation with Hindustani classical music that George Harrison tried on his compositions and sitar parts, the song was written during one of the group’s famed stays with the Maharishi in India. Bluegrass reviver Allison Krauss must have found a natural connection between the Celtic elements in that style and those in the Irish-descended McCartney’s melody, because she recorded “I Will” acoustically for a 1995 compilation entitled Now That I’ve Found You. Janelle, though not exactly gifted with Allison Krauss’s positively angelic pipes, outdoes herself in her version on Idol and breaks with a somewhat irritating precedent. One of my biggest pet peeves with theme nights has been when artists pick a song that doesn’t work with their style when there are other choices, sometimes even with covers like that of “I Will” for inspiration, that would be perfect. That is how we get odd choices such as Colton Dixon singing Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” and Kristy Lee Cook singing a bizarre fiddle-flecked version of “Eight Days a Week,” a pattern I thought Kree might break tonight with the kind of gentle Beatles song that works well with added-value twang. Emmylou Harris’s “Here, There, and Everywhere” and Roseanne Cash’s “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” are some of the better examples, but Janelle picked something where the cover wasn’t even a single and was more folk than Nashville country, defying all my preconceived notions about her. Paul Jolley suggested that country Beatles covers don’t work, but like so many aspects of Idol, it’s a matter of song choice. Janelle chose wisely and could eventually be the Cinderella story of the competition if she continues to improve at this rate.
Kree Harrison – “With a Little Help from My Friends” (Beatles) – Advanced
Lennon and McCartney (the contributions are quite disputed here) worked together to write “With a Little Help from My Friends” to give Ringo a show-stopper for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The song’s tongue-in-cheek odes to friendship, in the context of a band that was already showing internal tensions by 1967, have often been taken literally by the uninitiated despite the salty jokes contained in the lyrics. Ringo was nervous about his voice, and ultimately his band-mates wound up pestering him to sing the song he had helped inspire before heading upstairs to sleep at the crack of dawn. The goofy, casual tone that resulted from that ambush session actually worked well with the song’s lightness, and it provided ample room for an earnest, dramatic cover. Joe Cocker, who was to blues-rock what Linda Ronstadt was to country-rock (i.e. a talented interpreter better known for covers than originals), provided the definitive “serious” version of “With a Little Help from My Friends” on his 1969 debut, titled after the song with which he topped the British charts. Also performed in an extended version at Woodstock that year, Cocker’s take made a raspy but imposing vocal and a full gospel ensemble (complete with the obligatory Hammond organ) inextricable parts of the song as many remember it, to the point where the Beatles album track almost seemed like a quaint cover to those hearing it after Cocker’s. Almost every cover I have heard since Cocker’s is essentially a copy of his approach, and Kree’s is no different. She goes back to exploring the bluesy side that got her into the competition in the first place, and everything is compelling and authentic, though not the slightest bit original. Kree, a very generous person, seems to have wanted to convey gratitude for all the support this season with her song choice, and she’s certainly earned it, though I might have expected a bit more innovation. Voices against voices, however, she still has yet to disappoint.
Lazaro Arbos – “In My Life” (Beatles) – Advanced
“In My Life” began as Lennon’s attempt to write a reminiscence on childhood as British pundit Kenny Allsop suggested. The notoriously cryptic Lennon scrapped the specifics he had first written for something a bit more generic, resulting in a more transcendent love song that would go on to have sentimental appeal to nostalgics everywhere. McCartney’s imprimatur was mainly, at least as he put it, on the aptly wistful melody influenced in his words by Smokey Robinson. At Lennon’s behest, George Martin spiced up that melody by adding some impromptu Baroque piano (artificially speeded to sound like a harpsichord) to the bridge on Rubber Soul (1965). It was a pop song at heart, as Bette Midler’s cover on the soundtrack of the 1991 USO biopic For the Boys showed. Lazaro’s melodic style fits the song well, making the reported last-minute change somewhat understandable. However, his breathy voice cuts some of the breezy elegance of the song even when his emotional sincerity conveys the song’s meaning well. Jimmy’s suggestion of a click track to get the hang of the song’s unusual tempo (even Martin couldn’t play to it, hence the studio tricks on Rubber Soul) was a good idea, and nobody can say Lazaro didn’t inhabit the song even though he didn’t redefine it. The experience that he has gotten on Idol so far, including both dealing with often flighty judges (including the unpredictable Nicki Minaj), working with a producer, and of course the coming tour, may be more valuable to his future life than any record contract or endorsement deal. After all, it’s the runners-up that have really surprised us in some recent seasons.
Paul Jolley – “Eleanor Rigby” (Beatles) – Eliminated
When “Eleanor Rigby” came out, the now-familiar dirge was nothing short of revolutionary. A lead single of sorts from the pivotal 1966 album Revolver, “Eleanor Rigby” would be important proof that McCartney was more than the pop lightweight some would make him out to be as his solo career developed. Despite Lennon’s occasional claims on the lyrics, the concept for “Eleanor Rigby” was solidly McCartney’s by most accounts. The medieval Dorian mode of the melody clashed intentionally with the modern string quartet on the record (a result of Paul’s then recent Vivaldi kick). The effect perfectly matched the lyrics’ depiction of aging rural Britons caught between the strictures of the traditions they grew up with and the sometimes alienating dynamism of modern life. An equally lonely protagonist of the same name buried near where Lennon and McCartney first met in the Liverpool suburb of Woolton is just one of many eerie coincidences for die-hard fans to chew on. The heady single was apparently not too dense to charm British audiences into buying enough copies for a number-one chart finish, and the song also just missed the American Top Ten. Ray Charles (1968) and Aretha Franklin (1969) both had modest stateside hits with covers that were interesting in their own way, though Charles’s more conventional approach and Franklin’s almost joyful tone were both odd fits for the song. Seventh-season winner David Cook’s post-grunge version was probably the gold standard for Idol performances, and Paul Jolley therefore has his work cut out for him. Jolley is somewhat uneven, starting off with a bit of a tepid, shaky job on the verses. It’s not the easiest song to relate to for many, but that’s where his showy qualities are supposed to help narrate the story. The final chorus comes as a bit of a shock as his voice reaches sublime heights of expressivity as he brings out drama that McCartney, Lennon, and Harrison never mined from the song’s depths. It’s a mixed bag, and it doesn’t put Jolley anywhere near a front-runner artistically, but he sure knows how to finish a performance.