Abbey Dub (Goldlion Records)
All We Are Saying… (Savoy Jazz)
Oh, look at this: two very different collections of Beatles-inspired music – one by a free-range jazz legend; the other by a young band of reggae lions – and they both work in the nicest of ways. In the case of Bill Frisell and some very talented friends, their feelings about the music they’re interpreting are obvious and heartwarming; and though Yellow Dubmarine’s approach to The Beatles’ songbook might make you wary at first, the results are so natural-sounding that you’ll want to revisit the original albums just to ensure that there was no dub in the grooves.
Bill Frisell’s All We Are Saying … makes no apologies for being a musical love letter to the work of John Lennon – nor does it need to. Frisell and company (violinist Jenny Scheinman; bassist Tony Scherr; drummer Kenny Wollesen; Greg Leisz on pedal steel and acoustic guitars) aren’t trying to reinvent or finish thoughts they felt needed closure. They are simply enjoying playing music they’ve known and loved all their lives with plenty of heart and soul and not an ego in sight. For sure, it’s Frisell’s name on the album cover, but Scheinman and Leisz’ instrumental voices lead the way as well – and the team of Wollesen and Scherr are totally in cahoots with the mission at hand.
For an example, let’s burrow up in “Nowhere Man”: random chimes (soul sounds, not brain sounds) are joined after a few moments by rhythmic harmonics from Frisell’s guitar. Scherr and Wollesen establish an easy, steady pulse before you even know it’s there; Leisz uses the bass line as a step stool to begin a gentle climb; Scheinman’s violin murmurs and burbles its way into the picture. This is not-a-breath-of-wind snowfall music: Frisell begins offering up dollops of pure sound, blending and whirling gently with passages from Leisz’ pedal steel while the violin glides between them, sweetly shivering with its collar turned up. (The effect is not unlike some of the great jams you may have heard the David Nelson Band pull off on Jerry Garcia’s “The Wheel” – imagine DNB with Tim Carbone sitting in on violin, letting the song gel as they percolate on the root chord.)
Wollesen gradually increases the wump of the beat, welcoming the song’s main theme in with a short, gentle rumble of the floor tom. He and Scherr are key to the song’s vibe – they play it straight, keeping the rhythmic path uncluttered so that the other three can always touch down easily and safely no matter how high they soar. Frisell’s guitar takes the “vocal” while the violin offers up bow-strokes of sound for it to stand on; Leisz weaves on through the first half of the verse, joining Frisell for the second. By the time they hit the first chorus, you have to concentrate to tell who’s leading the way – but why bother? It’s all just loveliness.
In a departure from the original arrangement, the band pays homage to Lennon and Harrison’s original doubled-up guitar solo as they ease out of the chorus (rather than returning to a verse). The original turned the melody inside-out in the nicest of ways, free-falling to a harmonic in unison; Frisell and company take the same approach and it’s perfect. Another verse with Leisz, Scheinman, and Frisell shape-shifting roles so easily that it all becomes one instrument – right into the chorus and another take on the Lennon/Harrison guitar break.
Once again, the cascade at the tail end of the break results in a tender harmonic, this time followed by an intake of breath as the chime fades. Wollesen leads the way back into the song’s groove, quickly joined by Scherr’s bass. Again, their part is pure and solid, allowing the guitars and violin to soar and dip for a bit. Scheinman begins a thought; Leisz finishes it; Frisell punctuates it. The six-string offers an idea coated in a bit of overdrive; the pedal steel filters it and purifies it; the violin turns itself into a vase to hold it all in. The pick tickles; the steel bar shimmers; the bow warbles – and all the while the bass and drums provide a solid-yet-soft foundation.
The ensemble revisits Lennon and Harrison’s lead one more time, playing it out to its beautiful conclusion. The song ends on a series of harmonics; you’re bound to add a sigh.
Split between songs from The Beatles’ catalog (including “Across The Universe”, “In My Life”, and “Please, Please Me”) and from Lennon’s solo career (such as “Beautiful Boy”, “Give Peace A Chance”, and “Imagine”), All We Are Saying … shines because of the mutual respect the musicians involved have for the music they’re playing. From the wild chunkings of “Come Together” and the slinky smolder of “Revolution” to the bittersweet sway of “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” and the open admissions of “Woman”, the original songs’ emotions and intentions are handled gently, reinterpreted without ever losing their direction or impact. This is what love sounds like set to music.
For sure, the D.C./Baltimore-area-based Yellow Dubmarine had a pathway cleared before them when it comes to reggae twists on well-known rock music (the Easy Star All-Stars’ Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band being one recent – and successful – example). Having said that, one thing remains a constant: any reggae-flavored makeover of tunes as well-known as The Beatles’ still runs the risk of sounding like ska karaoke if not done properly.
Yellow Dubmarine’s Abbey Dub is done properly. It’s done damn well, in fact. One might imagine a band sifting through the Fab Four’s catalog to find a collection of songs that lent themselves readily to the reggae treatment, but Yellow Dubmarine took on the task of reinventing all 17 cuts of the original Abbey Road album from start to finish. Beginning with “Come Together” (all scary-deep bass and flurries of horn punches) and ending with “Her Majesty” (light and bubbly finger-picked guitar replaced by a upright piano and stripped-down wokka-chicky percussion, the whole works sounding like a slightly-off-mic outtake from the Black Ark), Abbey Dub is fun and a total head-shaker; as in, “Why does that work? It shouldn’t – but it does.”
Yellow Dubmarine changes things up and keeps it lively as they make their way through the songs of Abbey Road. Sometime the horns take the lead, as they do on “Octopus’s Garden” (save for the guitar/bong break) or “Something” – right up until the faders are brought up for a chorus of voices to sing the “You’re asking me will my love grow …” verse before giving way to a wonderful vintage-toned guitar solo. “Oh! Darling” is given a soulful-yet-too-sunshiney-to-cry treatment, sounding like something the great Jazz Jamaica All Stars might have pumped out in their heyday.
The arrangement of “Here Comes The Sun” may be the closest to the original, a sweet acoustic guitar remaining front-and-center with a ska beat slipping in nicely underneath. “Sun King” sounds like it was always meant to be played this way; the percussion on “Because” takes the song somewhere ancient and dark; and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” may be the album’s single biggest risk-taker simply because of the drama of the original, but damned if Yellow Dubmarine doesn’t pull it off – smoky/dreamy/ganja-infused bad desires and all, including the cavernous-sounding spiral at the end.
Yellow Dubmarine does a wonderful job of accomplishing their intended mission without ever resorting to clichés or taking the easy way out. Rearranging music this well known and having it come off this natural-sounding is quite a piece of work. To offer it as your debut album? That’s just crazy.
It’s crazy good, though.