Unfab faux: 'I Am Sam' brings weak Beatles covers

by Sam Lederer | 1/16/02 6:00am

In a life of simple pleasures, Sam Dawson's sole sources of enjoyment are dinners at IHOP and listening to Beatles covers with his friends. Dawson, Penn's character in the film "I am Sam," is a mentally challenged father trying to keep custody of his seven-year-old daughter who is now advancing past him.

The "I am Sam" soundtrack aims to remind listeners of more relaxed times in a fresh fashion, with artists covering favorite Beatles' songs. Seventeen of these tunes are featured on the soundtrack that boasts stars like Sheryl Crow, Ben Harper and Eddie Vedder. The premise for the soundtrack is heartfelt, but there is an obvious lack of inspiration.

The opening track, "Two of Us," showcases this flatness. Aimee Mann's voice is beautiful -- that cannot be disputed -- but the overall feel of the song is cheesy. The lyrics are forced and do not flow like they did in the original version.

Rufus Wainwright's cover of "Across the Universe" is the second in a long line of flat performances on this soundtrack. The self-proclaimed Beatles influenced artist virtually recreated the song with the musical arrangement. His voice is wrong for the heartfelt tune and is actually quite irritating. This diminishes the power that the song had some 30 years ago.

The Wallflowers' version of "I'm Looking Through You" is another example of what a good yet poorly-chosen singer can do to a song. Jakob Dylan's scratchy voice removes the pop element that was so crucial to the song's success. As if this wouldn't have been enough to kill it, his awkward delivery and stressing of the incorrect syllables signal a desperate gasp for air.

"Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," covered by the Black Crowes, and "We Can Work It Out" by Heather Nova, represent the two most heinous renditions of classic Beatles' songs. The Crowes lose the mystical aspect that is so important through weak guitar work and bad vocals. Nova lacks the power necessary to deliver a believable version of its remake, built on inspired lyrics.

While most of the tracks fall short, Sarah McLachlan's cover of "Blackbird" provides one of the few bright spots of the album. Her soulful and soothing voice makes the famous Lennon-McCartney tune sound more powerful. An echo effect reinforces the natural tone of the song about growing up and maturing.

Another commendable track is Eddie Vedder's performance of "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." Dangerously close to a typical Pearl Jam melody, Vedder's distinctive voice shouts emotion and makes for a fresh version of this song. The use of a tambourine and Vedder's screams of "Hey!" create harsh crescendos that reinforce the emotional aspect of the song.

Ben Harper's cover of "Strawberry Fields Forever" is easily the soundtrack's best song, and not only because it is one of the hardest to play. Harper's powerful voice is showcased as he follows the original faithfully in the beginning and then adds his own harmonies to create a buildup for the climax. The use of violins and sludgy guitars also help to preserve the song's psychedelic flavor.

Howie Day's cover of "Help!" is the most inventive interpretation of a Beatles' song. Adopting a slow tempo, Day effectively removes the pop element from the smash hit. He accomplishes it elegantly and, as a result, the song is given more emotion.

While credit must be given to any artist attempting to perform songs that are impossible to recreate without alienating the original, this album is altogether unimpressive. Despite a few inventive and unexpected covers, I feel it's still my duty to advise readers to spend their $16.99 on a real Beatles' album.