Various Artists – Instant Karma: The Campaign To Save Darfur
Release Date: June 12, 2007
Record Label: Warner Bros.
When it comes to covering music, there’s always the decision for the artist to attempt to replicate the original track or to make the song his own. When it comes to covering John Lennon, this internal battle is even greater, as the artist is covering one of the most prestigious and well-known songwriters in the history of music. When Warner Bros. and Amnesty International teamed up to form a collection of songs that would benefit the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, the decision to release a double album of John Lennon cover songs had the potential to fail as many other tribute albums in the past have.
Fortunately, when the track listing is this strong, combining a medley of genres, it is nearly impossible to not find something to like. Most of the artists on this album do the originals justice, even when juxtaposed with the original sound Lennon created. Skeptics beware--this collection succeeds.
The first album kicks off with U2’s rendition of “Instant Karma,” the slick mixing allows Bono’s vocals to soar through the song farther than the recording process allowed when these songs were. It is completely refreshing, invigorating even, on first listen to hear these songs louder and more polished than ever. This feeling continues through the bouncy and fun “#9 Dream” by R.E.M. Both tracks flow effortlessly, allowing each band to sound like themselves while retaining Lennon’s mood and point.
Although the bands seem comfortable in performing the tracks, some seem too afraid to take the reins on the song and completely make it their own. Country’s bad-boy party duo Big & Rich take “Nobody Told Me” and actually make it more dull than the original and Lenny Kravitz’s waif-like vocals on “Cold Turkey” provide a less-than-pleasant experience. However, there are some gems to be found on the first disc.
While nobody denies Christina Aguilera’s singing abilities, the once-dirrty songstress still surprises on this album with a fantastic, subtly brooding version of “Mother.” Other highlight tracks on the first disc include Los Lonely Boys jangling take on “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” Jakob Dylan and Dhani Harrison’s “Gimme Some Truth,” and, perhaps most shocking of all, Avril Lavigne’s “Imagine.” Yes, the same person who sings “Hey hey you you I don’t like your girlfriend” absolutely nails the cover of arguably the most famous of all John Lennon songs and blows surf-rocker Jack Johnson’s cover found on disc two out of the water.
The second disc starts with a tame Green Day on “Working Class Hero.” In a song that would seem to be a catalyst for political action and coupled with their political themes on American Idiot, I would have liked more passion in the song rather than just sticking to the formula that Lennon set out in the initial recording. The potential of the Black Eyed Peas covering “Power to the People” seemed undeniable, but they seem remarkably reserved on this track and it suffers as a result. Jack Johnson’s cover of “Imagine” features him over an acoustic guitar in the most simple-sounding song within the collection. While I can see how he was aiming to put his own touch on the song while letting the lyrics shine, it is unfortunate that it just does not work well in comparison to the original and next to Avril Lavigne’s cover.
The rest of the second disc, however, is just plain great. Each song works with the original while maintaining the bands own unique sound. I am usually not a fan of the band, but their unique amalgamation of techno sounds and vacantly full vocals from Ben Gibbard turn the song into a revitalizing listen that segues perfectly into the distorted guitars of Jaguares on “Gimme Some Truth.” Jack’s Mannequin featuring Mick Fleetwood give a wonderful interpretation of “God,” adding effects to Andrew McMahon’s vocals to simulate the first version of the song. This attention to detail is humbling, to see modern artists still respecting their roots and what has come before them. Regina Spektor’s “Real Love” is arguably the best track of all and may even outdo the original. Her voice coupled with the poignant, nearly-haunting piano is simply magical and inserts a completely new tone while preserving the original intent.
Bringing this many huge acts together onto one album is no easy task, nor is covering an artist as respected as John Lennon, but Instant Karma, for the most part, achieves where most other tribute albums fail. There is a fresh blend of genres mixed with a clever song list. The messages in these timeless classics still hold weight today and provide even more significance today when paired against the crisis in Darfur. Instant Karma has something for everyone; whether old or young, Beatles fan or not, you will find something to like, not to mention a bit of karma for yourself for helping out a worthy cause.