You know all the songs, except maybe one. You should know many of the performers. But I don't think anybody knew just how well Vega Productions' new "Minnesota Beatle Project, Vol. 2" would turn out.
A follow-up to last year's all-local, nonprofit Fab Four tribute CD, "Vol. 2" really doesn't have a clunker on it. Last year's album was terrific, too, but its best attribute might have been setting the bar high for this year. I honestly can't think of a better Beatles cover collection than this one, and I've heard many. Too many.
You can't exactly call this year's 16 new cover songs "updates," since Pert Near Sandstone's bluegrassy treatment of "I Am the Walrus" and the New Standards' cabaret spin on "Michelle" actually sound more vintage than the originals. You can't pin them all down genre-wise, either, since the CD boasts gospel, hip-hop and the aforementioned bluegrass in addition to all the rock. Age-wise, the participants range from teen band Total Babe ("Revolution") and members of the Edison High School Concert Band ("I Want to Hold Your Hand") to the guy who's been hosting the big local John Lennon tribute show for 31 years now, Curtiss A ("Good Night").
Heck, you can't even call this year's "MN Beatle Project" entirely a Minnesotan project: Arizona/Texas trio the Meat Puppets and Wisconsinites Cory Chisel & the Wandering Sons are among the contributors ("Tomorrow Never Knows" and "Fixing a Hole," respectively).
The thing that really ties the "Vol. 2" participants together is how they all managed to deliver playful, artful new spins on these classic tunes without trying too hard to be edgy, clever or cutesy. With that in mind, it made sense to ask the performers how they went about picking and remaking the songs.
Pert Near Sandstone, "I Am the Walrus" -- Not surprisingly, banjoist Kevin Kniebel revealed that the group had been working up its violin-led, hootenanny-ready rearrangement for years.
"It's just one of those long-standing goofy favorites," Kniebel said. "We laid down the basic track in one take and spent the rest of the time getting the song to really freak out at the end, laying on instruments like gongs, sitars, shakers, party whistles and lots of odd shouts and utterances. We tried to keep it real loose and fun -- it seems like that was a big part of what those guys were doing."
P.O.S., "Dear Boy" -- As he did in Gayngs, the Doomtree rapper shows off his singing abilities in this nugget from his favorite Beatles-related album, McCartney's "Ram." Said the real-life Stef Alexander, "the original has very hip-hop-feeling drums, and the vocals seemed like a fun challenge.
"My mom came over while I was recording and freaked out at how 'pretty' it was. I didn't like it at all then. I don't use that part of my voice very often, so it took me a while. I recorded the main vocal probably 75 times. It still sounded a little better in my head."
Soul Asylum, "Good Morning Good Morning" -- Soul Asylum's first new recording in almost five years was pieced together a thousand miles apart at singer Dave Pirner's New Orleans studio and Flowers in Minneapolis. Local guests included Ken Chastain and onetime Soul Asylum producer Chris Osgood.
Said guitarist Dan Murphy, "We asked Chris because he's the one who recruited us for this project, and Tommy [Stinson] wasn't available, so Ken came in swinging on bass.
"It's the first time Soul Asylum has really recorded through the Postal Service, and I think it worked pretty well."
Sounds of Blackness, "Hey Jude" -- As would be expected of the internationally renowned gospel choir, McCartney's crescendoing piano ditty sounds even more enormous here, with alternating lead vocals in the verses by Chreese Jones, Geoffrey Jones, Patricia Lacy-Aiken and Billy Steele.
" 'Hey Jude' was always one of my personal faves," S.O.B. leader Gary Hines said. "It's such a huge piece of music; the challenge in our case was to not let it get away from us and become too scattershot. So we were actually pretty careful and meticulous about the way we orchestrated it."
Meat Puppets with Alison Scott, "Tomorrow Never Knows" -- The Puppets were recruited through Minneapolis producer/guitarist Kevin Bowe, who worked on their last album. Said Bowe, "they cut their tracks in Spoon's studio in Austin, sent them up here and I messed around adding sitars and weird stuff, although what they sent me was plenty weird in the first place."
Scott and pal Desdamona added vocals on top of all that. When it came to the song's Arabic scale melody, Scott said, "I got to break out some of the music theory I learned in college. It was a good refresher."
Rogue Valley, "And Your Bird Can Sing" -- If the original gets stuck in your head a lot, just wait to hear this slower, regal treatment. Said Rogue Valley frontman Chris Koza, "It was an easy choice: 'Revolver' is the record I've listened to most, and that's the song that always pops into my head.
"I wanted to add a little lushness to it. It's such a gorgeous song, but the original can be a little brittle in parts, in terms of the guitar work and the production. I took advantage of the melody more and added a few 'ahh-ahhs' at the end."
Polara, "It's All Too Much" -- Ed Ackerson & Co. adds to the hazy sheen and turns up the rock oomph on George Harrison's "Yellow Submarine" contribution. "It's been one of my faves since I was a little kid," Ackerson said, "plus it represents a sort of zenith of Abbey Road 1967 production techniques. They threw in the kitchen as well as the sink on the original production. I have a ton of gear from that period and I know how to get the sounds, so it was super fun to have an excuse to do all those '60s production tricks -- varispeed recording, backwards tracks, tea towels on the drums, etc."
New Standards, "Michelle" -- With Chan Poling on vocals, the jazzy trio adds even more French flavor beyond the lyrics. Said bassist John Munson, "Chan has an abiding love of French cinema music, and I've played some musettes and whatnot over the last couple years. So when Chan started singing it like that, we just both knew instantly where we wanted to go with it. We sprinkled in a garnish of our favorite singers, the Ascots, to give it a little bit of that Swingle Singers style, à la the 'Place Vendôme' record with Modern Jazz Quartet."
None of the above -- Not to be downplayed, the other tracks not already mentioned are some of the best: Mason Jennings' acoustic remake of "Child of Nature," which is an early demo version of Lennon's "Jealous Guy"; A Night in the Box's shotgun-like blast through "Happiness Is a Warm Gun"; a mostly non-electronic, piano-plunked version of "Real Love" by electronic duo Lookbook, which has since split up, and Communist Daughter's genuinely sleepy, ethereal "Golden Slumbers."
What it's all for -- Through such events as its Rock the Boat concerts and the upcoming New Year's Eve bash with Brother Ali, along with sales of "Minnesota Beatle Project, Vol. 1," Vega Productions has donated more than $100,000 through the Minnesota Music Educators Association and other organizations to fund music and arts programs in public schools statewide. It has also put used musical instruments in the hands of thousands of students. Last year's "Project" CD benefited more than 6,000 students, according to executive director Mark Gehring. The goal is to reach 10,000 students with this year's album.
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