May  2002

I Am Sam - Music From and Inspired By The Motion Picture
V2 Music CD 63881-27119-2
Released: 2001

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

[Reviewed on CD]Why rearrange a classic? Just what can be done to songs whose music is already imbedded in the hearts and minds of every listener in the world? I mean, just how does one redo tunes that were definitive the moment the songwriters penned the words and music? In the case of the soundtrack for the movie I Am Sam, those timeless classics being reworked are the songs of the Beatles, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And therein lies a tale.

Reconstituting Beatles tunes is an extremely tough row to hoe. No matter who sings the songs, no matter how (or how well) they are sung, no matter how slick the production, or even how good the movie, they are going to end up being compared to the originals -- and come out wanting. Sorry, but there’s no escaping it. These songs are simply too well known, too good in their original form, to allow for redoing. But that hasn’t stopped either the producers of I Am Sam or the myriad musicians who’ve lent their talents to this disc. Yet, they haven’t been totally embarrassed in their efforts. While one is never going to reach for this disc when one wants to hear the songs included here, there is a smattering of new insight into some of these songs that makes this album worthwhile.

And the main insight is that, 30+ years (or, an entire generation or two) after this music was first laid down, musicians are still finding inspiration from the songs of Lennon & McCartney. Beginning with Aimee Mann and Michael Penn dueting on ‘Two Of Us," moving on to Eddie Vedder's interpretation of "You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away," through Sheryl Crow's reading of "Mother Nature’s Son," Rufus Wainwright’s "Across The Universe," and Paul Westerberg’s "Nowhere Man" (and many, many others), a whole new generation of singers, speaking to an entirely new group of listeners, finds importance in interpreting these songs. And one of the main devices used here to keep these songs both fresh yet familiar is to keep the tunes the same. Outside of the heavy use of strings (and the voices of the singers, of course), one might be hard-pressed to hear major differences between these interpretations and the Beatles' originals.

As examples, listen to Sarah McLachlan’s take on "Blackbird," or The Black Crowes’ "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds," or Grandaddy’s "Revolution." In each of these songs, the singer attempts to sing in the manner we all remember, while still imprinting them with their own unique vocal styles. Periodically, a new insight into one of these songs jumps out at you. For me, it was Nick Cave’s rendition of "Let It Be." I’ve always considered this to be one of the prettier of the Beatles' songs. Cave, while holding true to the tune, turns it almost into something like a hymn. I also found Chocolate Genius’ "Julia," an interesting variation.

The sound quality varies almost as much as the types of singers recorded here. But that’s not surprising when one considers that of the 17 different songs recorded on I Am Sam, there were 17 different recording locations and producers. Still, the quality isn’t all bad. Soundstage width is impressive. And of greater interest is the abundance of acoustic instruments used here. Their tonal signature is captured very, very well, which sort of gives one a bearing to sight off of. Of course, having this disc mastered by Greg Calbi doesn’t hurt, either.

I don’t know if there is a better way to reinterpret songs as important, as much a part of the fabric of so many lives, as these. I Am Sam does make a valiant attempt at allowing a new generation of singers to put their personal marks on these songs while holding true to the spirit of the originals. That they failed is not the issue; that they tried is. Perhaps the most important thing this disc will accomplish is to give parents a rare common ground with their children. I think John and Paul would appreciate that.