Covering a Beatles album is akin to playing with fire. Iconic albums such as Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, and Abbey Road are so ingrained in the public’s minds that any deviations from the originals are met with immediate skepticism. Some artists have successfully navigated these troubled waters (e.g. Stevie Wonder, George Benson, Aerosmith, and Diana Krall), while many others have failed. The latest tribute album entry, Abbey Dub by Yellow Dubmarine, remakes the entire Abbey Road LP in dub style, a sub-genre of reggae. How much you enjoy Abbey Dub depends solely on whether you like that particular musical form.
First, a brief definition of dub: the genre grew out of reggae in the 1960s, and includes characteristics such as remixing existing recordings, emphasizing drum and bass parts, and instituting a reverb effect on the vocals. Lee “Scratch” Perry and Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock pioneered the musical form, which has since influenced a dizzying number of genres such as ambient, drum and bass, jungle, house, disco, ska, rocksteady, and dancehall, just to name a few. In other words, dub is not straightforward reggae like Bob Marley and the Wailers (although Marley did experiment with stressing beats and adding echoing effects to vocals). Some forms of modern dub incorporate electronic elements and “chill” music, creating a laid-back tone. For more detailed information on the history of dub, read Wikipedia’s thorough entry and explore its related links.
For Abbey Dub, a group of Baltimore and Washington D.C.-based musicians decided to radically remake the original album, fusing elements of reggae, ska, dub, and ambient to re-imagine classic tracks. The results are mixed—for example, a mellow take on “Come Together” does not capture the passion and drive of the original. Here “I Want You (She’s So Heavy” is sung by Miss Sara Kryscio over a largely upbeat rearrangement. While the organ and bass retain some of the track’s original elements, the wispy-voiced lead singer simply cannot evoke John Lennon’s sensual vocal. Again, is the track meant to be a mellow, chill-out tune?
Not surprisingly, Abbey Road’s “lighter” songs fare best from the dub overhaul. “Octopus’ Garden” sounds charmingly bouncy, although Ringo Starr’s vocals are replaced by a trumpet. Still, the song’s original humorous, childlike tone fits in well with reggae. “Here Comes the Sun” also benefits from the dub treatment, although the horn section seems an unnecessary, overdone element for a delicate song. Still, the track works so well that it seems tailor-made for reggae. Ambient fans may enjoy “Something,” which contains more electronic effects, although is curiously absent of lyrics.
However, it always comes back to whether some tracks do not lend themselves well to an upbeat treatment. “Oh! Darling” clearly illustrates the Beatles’ love of the blues, with Paul McCartney’s screaming vocals representing one of his best performances. On Abbey Dub, George Jamison’s pleasantly smooth singing style seems counter to the song’s gritty origins.
Then comes the biggest challenge: the Abbey Road medley. “Because” soars because of the Beatles’ close harmonies (used to chilling effect on the Love soundtrack). Yellow Dubmarine chose to eliminate the vocals, perhaps feeling they could not duplicate the original. Instead, they let the horns do the heavy lifting, accompanied by very subtle percussion. While this certainly emphasizes the beautiful melody and chords, it strips “Because” of its best feature. “You Never Give Me Your Money,” written during the Beatles’ turbulent time fighting over Apple Corps and the future of the group, does not retain its original hopelessness and somewhat angry emotions. Conversely, “Sun King” works fairly well with a reggae/dub rhythm, although those distinctive Beatles harmonies do not shine through as much as on the original. Yellow Dubmarine’s slower tempo on “Polythene Pam” robs the track of its back-to-basics rock and roll. But “Golden Slumbers” still sounds gentle with a mellow reggae beat, most likely due to its lullaby origins.
The grand finale, “Carry That Weight/The End,” sounds as if Yellow Dubmarine knew they couldn’t deviate too far from the heavy rock and dueling guitar-sound of the Beatles’ iconic version. But the slower tempo and horns, which duel with the guitars, just doesn’t evoke the ferocity, the “let’s go out on top” note of the original. Yes, they do end with the “hidden” track, “Your Majesty,” which features a distorted vocal, piano, and slight percussion, sounding like it was recorded via tape recorder in someone’s basement.
I realize it might be unfair to expect a group like Yellow Dubmarine to equal the Beatles. However, covering a Fab Four album invites, nay demands, such comparisons. Anyone attempting to completely re-imagine a classic album by any artists will encounter resistance. Embarking on such a project is fraught with danger, and Yellow Dubmarine obviously bravely took on this challenge. The results are mixed, and one wonders if some songs simply do not lend themselves to drastic remakes. Dub fans may want to check out Abbey Dub, but Beatles fans—and classic rock fans in general—will constantly find themselves comparing these tracks to the originals, and in every case, the Beatles still come out on top.
For more information, visit Yellow Dubmarine’s official site.