Disc 2 of The Art Of McCartney, like Disc 1, is kind of a mixed bag. Last time the buckets were a little more thematic, but this time I am straight-up grading them. What I noticed this time around is that McCartney’s output has a wide range of quality, and some songs give the artist a lot more to live up to than others. I’m not assigning scores or anything, but “degree of difficulty” definitely played into my evaluations — if you start with a bad song and end up pretty good, it’s extra impressive, and if you start with a great song and sound bad, it is terrible. Let’s go in descending order of quality:

Covers That Transcend The Original

  • Smokey Robinson – So Bad — How does it happen that people like Bob Dylan and Billy Joel sound kind of wrecked, but Smokey Robinson still sounds perfect? Whatever it is, I’m not complaining, because he turns this somewhat obscure track from the Pipes Of Peace album into the sweetest song. It’s the kind of song he was born to sing, and while Paul’s falsetto on the original is impressive, it’s not a patch on this.
  • The Airborne Toxic Event – No More Lonely Nights — I know nothing at all about The Airborne Toxic Event, besides that they have a memorable name, but I was quite impressed with their treatment of this song. The original isn’t great — a typical mid-80s McCartney schmaltz-fest — but TATE turns in a delicate acoustic treatment, stripping out the showmanship and replacing it with yearning.
  • Toots Hibbert with Sly & Robbie – Come And Get It — Nothing against Badfinger, but when I heard this reggae version of “Come And Get It”, I felt like I understood the song for the first time. Of course it’s a reggae song.
  • B.B. King – On The Way — B.B. King pulls off a rare and remarkable trick here, which is that he makes his version sound like it’s supposed to be the original. When I listen to this track, it makes McCartney’s weird, experimental approach on McCartney II sound like the avant-garde cover of a straight-ahead B.B. King song.

Covers That Live Up To The Original

  • Heart – Letting Go — Again, there’s very little difference musically between this version and the original. (I think producer Ralph Sall actually had McCartney’s touring band play a lot of the backing tracks.) But Ann and Nancy bring a vocal power that really suits this song, enlivening it enough to stand toe-to-toe with the Venus And Mars original.
  • Allen Touissant – Lady Madonna — Two things elevate this version: Touissant’s piano, and the way he sings a countermelody instead of the familiar Beatles’ tune.
  • Sammy Hagar – Birthday — C’mon, what’s not fun about Sammy Hagar singing “Birthday”? I love all his little rock-n-roll yelps. “Yeah! Come on! Woo! Uh-huh! Dig it!” It’s a party tune, and the Red Rocker party treatment is perfect for it.
  • Robert Smith – C Moon — I really, really dislike “C Moon.” Just by not saying, “Was that the intro? I should’ve been in! Uh-buh-buh-buhhhh…!”, Smith already scored big points with me. I still don’t like the song, but pull out the dopey approach, children’s chorus, and otherwise lethal levels of twee, and you end up with a much more tolerable song. I guess what I’m saying is it was a pretty damn low bar, and Smith jumped over it.
  • Peter, Bjorn, and John – Put It There — I think Flowers In The Dirt was one of Sir Paul’s best post-Beatles efforts, and I was glad to see it represented in this collection. This cover shows that PB&J get what was special about the original, and are able to update it without losing its spirit.

Inside cover of The Art Of McCartney -- fake signatures (i.e. a handwriting font) from the participating artists

Covers That Don’t Improve Or Detract From The Original

  • Billy Joel – Live And Let Die — He’s still doing the Billy Joel Armstrong thing here, but there are two saving graces. First, he does it less. Second, this song is a lot better suited to that full-throated gravelly thing, because it’s already kind of a kooky, over-the-top song to begin with, rather than “Maybe I’m Amazed”, which is meant to be tender. Thus, we end up with a perfectly serviceable cover of “Live And Let Die.”
  • Chrissie Hynde – Let It Be — I agonized over this one. On the one hand, I love “Let It Be” and I love Chrissie Hynde’s voice, so on paper this should be a slam dunk. But because I love the original “Let It Be” so much, it’s tough for any cover to measure up. Plus, Chrissie does this weird thing in her vocal, where she Buddy Holly hiccups over a number of words, putting a distinct break into words like “in”, “right”, and “be”. “Be” just sounds weird as a two-syllable word, and it’s distracting. Still, other than that, she sounds great, and she delivers the right level of emotion. So I ended up kind of in the middle – parts of it I love, and parts of it I wish she’d made a different choice.
  • Robin Zander And Rick Nielsen – Jet — A very literal cover. Fun, like the original. In fact, pretty much overall just like the original.
  • Perry Farrell – Got to Get You Into My Life — I am a stone-cold, confirmed, Jane’s Addiction HATER. So I approached this one with dread. Imagine my surprise to find that very little of anything I associate musically with Perry Farrell appears here at all. For other combinations of artist and song, that would be a disappointment, but here it is a huge relief. I enjoy this version a lot, probably because it sounds so much like the original.

Covers That Aren’t Quite Good

  • Joe Elliott – Hi Hi Hi — “Hi Hi Hi” is better than “C Moon” (they were a double-A-sided single in 1972), but that doesn’t make it good. Joe Elliott gives it a completely bland treatment which doesn’t help it out.
  • Owl City – Listen To What The Man Said — Did “Listen To What The Man Said” really need more wide-eyed enthusiasm?
  • Dion – Drive My Car — It’s neat that Dion is still singing and releasing new music. A 50’s-style treatment of “Drive My Car” could have been fun. This is not that. It’s a pretty straightforward cover, done in an idiosyncratic voice. Not bad, but not quite good either.
  • Alice Cooper – Eleanor Rigby — There’s nothing particularly Alice Cooper-ish about this cover of “Eleanor Rigby”, which I guess is good? But on the other hand, it feels like any reasonably competent singer could have made this version, which is to say, it’s not very interesting or exciting. Check out Joe Jackson’s version for a much cooler cover of this song.

Covers That Are Just Bad

  • Dr. John – Let ‘Em In — I have never understood the appeal of Dr. John. I mean, obviously the guy has had a long career. I just watched him in The Last Waltz, from 1979, and here he is on an album from 2014. But to me, he’s like a comedian who only knows one joke, and the joke is only mildly funny. He does everything the exact same way. So, it turns out it’s possible to make a somewhat irritating song like “Let ‘Em In” actually SUPER ANNOYING if you bring a mannered enough approach to it.
  • Steve Miller – Hey Jude — Oh, god. This is, by a pretty wide margin, the worst cover to appear on either CD. Remember how I said Steve Miller was perfectly cast to sing “Junior’s Farm”? Well, the same cannot be said for frickin’ “Hey Jude”. Steve Miller is great to have a goofy good time with, but he’s not your guy for an uplifting spiritual experience. They sound like a tired frat party band, as the evening is winding down and just a few stragglers are chatting on couches and hoping to get lucky. If you’ve ever hoped to hear a version of “Hey Jude” that feels both lazy and desperate, have I got a cover for you, and believe me, you can have it.