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It’s probably fair to say that Tribute To, the My Morning Jacket singer Jim James Yim Yames‘ new disc of George Harrison versions, comes off more as a thought experiment than an organically approached extracurricular. That’s not a put-down: How many times have you asked, “What if ___ covered ___?” and smiled at the thought? (In my case, I fill in “Panda Bear” and “The Raspberries,” but some dreams are just too good to come true.)
It’s easy to dwell more on what the six-song EP, out today on ATO (and available for free on MySpace), doesn’t cover than what is does. The two Beatles selections amount to probably the best, most haunting song Harrison ever wrote ( “Long, Long, Long”) and one of his more interesting ones ( “Love You To”), but they feel too obvious, and far from the most curious potential choices. Why not “Savoy Truffle” or “Only A Northern Song” or “The Inner effing Light?” Why put forward the best (and best known) version of Harrison when you can plumb the late guitarist’s more idiosyncratic side?
The solo Harrison numbers are more problematic, if only because all of them — “Behind That Locked Door,” “My Sweet Lord,” “Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll),” and “All Things Must Pass” — come from the same album, Harrison’s 1970 pop debut All Things Must Pass. Posterity rightly remembers that three-record behemoth as a Great Rock Album, so the appeal to James is understandable, especially since Harrison never again matched such sprawl and ambition. To ignore, say, the purposeful yet understated Living In The Real World (1974), or Harrison’s overproduced self-titled album (1979), or his late-’60s experiments with psychedelia and electronic music (Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound) probably makes for safe curatorship — just not a particularly interesting tribute. It’s no surprise that fans of My Morning Jacket will get much more out of Tribute To than fans of the quiet Beatle.
Yet it’s hard to begrudge James for playing (presumably) his favorite songs by one of his (presumably) favorite artists (he recorded the EP in late 2001, not long after Harrison’s death at age 58). The alt-country crooner’s sorrowful, heavily reverbed voice is a good stand-in for Harrison’s often shimmering arrangements, as well as for his music’s bittersweetness. That’s most evident in “My Sweet Lord,” transfigured from celebratory to downright funereal. The cover is all acoustic guitar and somber, multitracked vocals; when James swallows a sob on the fourth word of “I really wanna go with you,” it’s clear he’s singing to Harrison and not the titular deity. James gives most of the EP similar treatment, occasionally tickling songs with a gentle, heavily sustained piano. The result is a sameness that won’t demand repeat listens; still, between this EP and James’ upcoming Monsters Of Folk record with M. Ward, Conor Oberst, and Mike Mogis, it’s a good year to be a My Morning Jacket fan.
The EP’s outlier, almost (not quite) worth the price of admission, is “Love You To,” once a swirling raga. Here it’s a far uglier acid trip, less soft transcendence than sardonic menace, in which a banjo slides through each guitar strum like a snake through sand. If the key line in The Beatles’ original was “I’ll make love to you/If you want me too,” here everything almost tilts on “Love me while you can/Before I’m a dead old man” — until you realize James has changed the lyric’s second half to “love our fellow man.” An old message, and Harrison’s most frequent theme, which James manages to find even at his most melancholy.
Photo courtesy of Yim Yames’ MySpace page.