Surely acting in the spirit of John Lennon, Yoko Ono has donated all publishing rights to Lennon’s songs so that Amnesty International could put together a benefit album for Darfur. On “Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign To Save Darfur,” the two-disc album released Tuesday, 23 major rock and pop stars or bands, from U2 to Avril Lavigne, offer their own interpretations of Lennon’s songs.
As generous as Ono has been, a fan of Lennon’s music - particularly of his “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” and “Imagine” albums - has to worry somewhat about what other artists might do to songs as personal, angry and raw as these.
One’s worst fears are confirmed on Christina Aguilera’s version of “Mother,” Lennon’s public mourning for the mother and father who abandoned him as a child. For all of Aguilera’s talent and vocal range, her Joplinesque interpretation, with upper register melismas and other vocal pyrotechnics galore, comes across as phony and tasteless.
Similarly, Jack’s Mannequin (Andrew McMahon of Something Corporate, aided by drummer Mick Fleetwood) lacks the emotional depth or historical gravitas to handle “God.” It’s a tough and poignant song for anyone to sing, but lines like “I don’t believe in Beatles” and “the dream is over” sentiment it conveys are just too personal and so identified with Lennon to be sung adequately by almost anybody else.
And while “Power to the People” is not one of Lennon’s more eloquent or substantial protest songs, the trivialized version here by Black Eyed Peas is not likely to inspire anyone to take to the streets.
Yet despite these flops, the album has more than its share of buoyant approaches and intriguing interpretations.
U2 and R.E.M. provide adept versions of “Instant Karma” and “#9 Dream,” respectively, the familiar voices of Bono and Michael Stipe filling the bill naturally and with flair. Green Day’s “Working Class Hero” captures the pain, bitterness and anger of the original, reminding us that Lennon was a bit of a Marxist. But one has to protest the censoring of Lennon’s salty language in the song. (An unexpurgated version is available on iTunes.)
Lenny Kravitz responds to the challenge of “Cold Turkey” with a WWJD (What Would Jimi Do) answer - lots of wah-wah pedal and effects on his guitar, and a pained vocal that’s a lot more real than Aguilera’s.
Youssou N’Dour offers an offbeat yet pleasant interpretation of “Jealous Guy,” singing beautifully in both English and an African language, backed by traditional African instruments, and providing a subtle break by just whistling.
Also appealing in their sparsity and subtlety are English neo-soul singer Corinne Bailey Rae’s downbeat take on “I’m Losing You” and Moscow-born, New York-based Regina Spektor’s lovely version of “Real Love.”
Two performers with impossible legacies to fulfill - Jakob Dylan and Dhani Harrison - join forces (as their dads did in the Traveling Wilburys) on a scorching and intense “Gimme Some Truth.”
And a singer with absolutely no known musical legacy - the Hasidic Jewish dancehall/style rapper Matisyahu - does a nifty, reggafied “Watching the Wheels.”
Perhaps the most pleasantly surprising song on the album is Avril Lavigne’s interpretation of “Imagine.” The young Canadian rocker sings Lennon’s anthem about peace and freedom with a fragile and innocent voice that is effective, inspiring and touching.
In addition to the 23 tracks on this double album, recordings of Lennon’s songs by Ozzy Osbourne, the Deftones, Duran Duran and others will be available for digital downloading on iTunes.
So what’s missing? How about Paul McCartney doing “How Do You Sleep?” - that would have been a shocking surprise. And who wouldn’t love to hear Ringo Starr taking a stab at “Crippled Inside”?
As a tribute to the music of Lennon and a benefit for a worthy cause, “Instant Karma” is in large measure a success. But coming out a week after McCartney released a new solo album, it’s also a reminder of how sad it is that Lennon isn’t around to make music that would continue to enrich us all.