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Music Review: The Nu-Utopians – Imagined: The John Lennon Song Project

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Back in 1972, Rex Fowler first appeared on the recording scene with the debut album by his folk/rock duo, Aztec Two Step. Continuing to record and tour to the present day, last year Fowler teamed with another folk mainstay, Tom Dean, to work on a project that grew out of their love for the music of Beatle John Lennon. They ended up creating something very special indeed.

Fowler and Dean first called themselves The John Lennon Song Project until the Lennon estate told them that name was not acceptable. “It was rather presumptuous for us to try to use that name,” Fowler admits. “The estate contacted us after we planned to play for a World Hunger benefit. They said we could use `Celebrating the Music of John Lennon’ as a sub-title after we came up with calling ourselves the Nu-Utopians. We tried different spellings to refer to the fictional country John and Yoko called Nutopia back in the ‘70s. We hope his fans will recognize the connection.”

From the beginning, the Nu-Utopians had a fresh approach to the Lennon catalog readily evident on their debut album, Imagined. The group wasn’t interested in being Beatles or Lennon sound-alikes, but rather wanted to pay tribute by, well, re-imagining songs that were either hits or those rarely covered by other acts. “It really started with `I’ll Get You/Imagine,’” Fowler explains.

“Both songs begin with `Imagine’ — ‘Imagine I’m in love with you/It’s easy cause I know.’ Of course `Imagine’ begins with that word.” Fowler and Dean started mashing the songs together by going back and forth with verses from each tune and working to create a seamless flow as they transitioned from one set of lyrics and melody to the other. “We quickly added about four or five of these blendings and realized we were on to something.”

The resulting album is a rather elegant, sophisticated series of such mash-ups, based in no small part on the musicianship of the seven players. For example, “Hide Your Love Away/Norwegian Wood” is more than a back-and-forth medley; the song begins with the original words and music of Lennon’s “Hide Your Love Away,” but quickly guitar hooks and phrases from “Norwegian Wood” are interspersed between the chorus and verses. Only later in the song does one full verse from “Norwegian Wood” fit into the flow. Likewise, for “A Day In The Life/Across The Universe,” these two songs with a dreamy feel are blended with a more stripped down, acoustic arrangement that pulls together the complexities of the former (“Day”) with the ethereal sensibilities of the latter ( “Universe.”)

In some ways, the Nu-Utopians are reminiscent of the Beatles “Love” project that was produced by George Martin, where bits and pieces of Beatles songs were put together in surprising new ways. But the vocals of the Nu-Utopians, both solo and harmonized, are not the Fabs and the post-Beatles Lennon material doesn’t contain his edge—and that’s part of the point. There are no driving drums here, only light percussion behind acoustic, electric and bass guitars, along with cello, violin, mandolin, and accordion. It’s an ensemble that has no difficulty recreating the studio arrangements on stage, and the Nu-Utopians are earning rave reviews for their concerts and live clips at YouTube.

Not to overuse the verb, but it’s hard to imagine a Lennon fan not appreciating this collection of both familiar and more obscure songs creatively restructured and performed with such clear reverence and affection. It’s worth more than one listen—at least once to hear the surprises along the way, and a second or third time just to enjoy the playing and production.

I don’t speak alone on this—the group’s CD just won the IMA (Independent Music Awards) Vox Pop Poll. Currently, Fowler says the group is “working on a follow-up CD for next year as we speak.” Stay tuned

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About Wesley Britton