Either imitation really isn’t the sincerest form of flattery, or flattery simply isn’t all it's cracked up to be. Either way, the new two-CD tribute to the music of Paul McCartney, “The Art of McCartney,” is a glaring example of a blown opportunity.
It must have looked great on paper. Producer Ralph Sall, a longtime fan of the ex-Beatle as well as a big admirer of the long-running touring band that backs McCartney on his concert tours, started with a great idea and then scored the participation of a wealth of rock and pop stars, each offering his or her take on a song from McCartney’s estimable songbook.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post misidentified Paul McCartney touring band member Rusty Anderson as Rusty Young.
That talent list is impressive: Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Willie Nelson, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John and, in a nod to musicians who got their start after 1970, the Airborne Toxic Event, Owl City and Perry Farrell, to name a smattering of the nearly three dozen participants.
They’re backed by McCartney’s band, which ostensibly adds another layer of authority. But there’s the rub. As expertly as guitarists Brian Ray and Rusty Anderson, keyboardist Paul Wickens and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. back the man himself, their note-perfect renditions of original Beatles, Wings and McCartney solo arrangements behind all the guests, with a couple of noteworthy exceptions, simply results in an extended session of Paul McCartney karaoke night.
What light can Billy Joel shed on “Maybe I’m Amazed” or “Live and Let Die” when the only difference between Joel and McCartney’s performances is Joel’s slightly gruffer voice? Even the guitar solo is identical to Paul's.
Where’s the insight into “Junior’s Farm” or “Hey Jude” as sung by Steve Miller (!) against carbon copy accompaniment from the original records? And was anybody anywhere waiting breathlessly to hear Sammy Hagar rock out on “Birthday”?
Even the ever idiosyncratic Night Tripper, New Orleans funkmeister Dr. John, seems straightjacketed in his game stab at “Let 'Em In.” At least Allen Toussaint brings a shred of Crescent City flavor to his performance of the New Orleans-inspired “Lady Madonna.” B.B. King also unleashes a good measure of the blues spirit to a comparatively obscure choice, “On the Way” from 1980’s “McCartney II” album.
To be sure, it’s a twisted treat hearing 73-year-old Dylan growl his way through “Things We Said Today,” making the minor-key reverie sound more ominous than ever, and Jamaica’s Toots Hibbert, who’s joined by stellar reggae rhythm section Sly & Robbie, immediately freshens up “Come and Get It” with a perky island groove.
The standout track of the whole project is easily Brian Wilson’s treatment of another relatively low-profile track: “Wanderlust,” from McCartney’s 1982 album, “Tug of War.” That may reflect the mutual-admiration these two separated-at-birth pop icons — born two days and an ocean apart in June 1942 — have held throughout most of their lives.
Even with his limited voice of today to work with, Wilson invests considerable melancholy and sweetness into his performance, and his rich harmonies, of course, are characteristically gorgeous. It helps that the song is nowhere near as intensely familiar as such cornerstone numbers as “Let It Be,” “Band on the Run,” “The Long and Winding Road,” and the other McCartney biggies that make up the bulk of this collection.
If only the others brought aboard were extended as much freedom to do something other than trace outlines over the contours of this familiar canon.
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"The Art of McCartney"
** Two stars (out of four)