I’ll begin with a confession. Last week was the first time I ever listened to a famous double-album that was released in November of 1968. It’s self-titled but is better known as “The White Album,” and I’m, of course, talking about The Beatles.
What can I say? I’m not a hardcore Beatles fan. But let me be 100 percent clear. Their contribution is not lost of me, and I don’t want to live in a world without several of their tunes, including “Here, There And Everywhere,” “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Across The Universe,” “Penny Lane” and “Hey Jude.” And does it get much better than the one-two punch of “Golden Slumbers” into “Carry That Weight?”
This brings me to Thursday, Sept. 6. Around lunchtime, a steady stream of social media posts started showing up in my feed from several local acts all talking about a brand new compilation album called “Beatles 1968 Portland, ME 2018.” It’s a song-by-song reinterpretation of all 30 tracks, in order, from “The White Album” by 30 different Maine acts, and it was put together by something called The Maine Embassy. Suffice it to say, I had a fairly significant freak out at my desk, and upon recovering, I listened to the entire thing, twice through, over the next couple of hours and was wowed multiple times. This was followed by a tidal wave of questions, starting with what the heck is The Maine Embassy?
It didn’t take long to discover that the mastermind behind the project was musician Jeff Beam. In the midst of firing off an email riddled with capital letters and exclamation points, the next logical step in wrapping my head around this thing was to start at the beginning and actually listen to “The White Album.” As a music writer and fan, I knew this was a significant moment, so I made sure to pay extra close attention to the songs that were new to me. I was schooled on a whole another dimension of The Fab Four ,beginning with the trippy, minute-long “Wild Honey Pie.” Then came “Martha My Dear” with its bouncy piano, sweet strings and horns. Sheer delight. “Piggies” has a nursery rhyme feel to it but quickly becomes a slap in the face to capitalism and greed. “I Will” is by far my happiest discovery on the album. It’s under two minutes long and is a swoon-inducing love song. “Long, Long, Long” gets honorable mention as does the chilled out version of “Revolution” called “Revolution 1.”
Then I went back to The Maine Embassy version for another run-through, and there isn’t a single song on there that isn’t notable. This doesn’t mean that I necessarily love all 30 tracks; however, I couldn’t be more impressed with the musicianship, imagination and work that went into each recording. Some songs stay on a similar path as the originals, and others veer off into somewhere entirely different. I wish I had space to remark on every song, because they all deserve it. But what I can do is send you to themaineembassy.com and encourage you to carve out some uninterrupted listening time.
I will offer up a few shout-outs to some of the tracks, starting with the Micromasse instrumental, retro take on “Glass Onion.” Micromasse is the trio of Hammond organist Pete Dugas, drummer Chris Sweet and guitarist Max Cantlin, and their version is something you might hear while having cocktails with Austin Powers. Groovy, baby!
Builder of the House is the folk-pop duo of Rob Cimitile and Elliot Heeschen, and their contribution is “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” While the original is certainly a classic, I long ago tired of it and had high hopes that Builder would do something different. They sure did! With electric guitar and distorted vocals, they’ve made it into a brooding rock tune, and I thank them for it.
Seepeoples is the indie rock band fronted by Will Bradford. They added several shots of caffeine and vocal effects to “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” but also maintained the late ’60s aesthetic. Two thumbs up!
“Rocky Raccoon” is a song I imagine divides some Beatles fans. It’s a bit hokey, and yet there’s something fun about it. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Kate Beever had her work cut out for her with this one, but she managed to turn it into something delightful that shuffles along at a slower pace than the original, and with some vibraphone in the mix, it’s entirely enchanting.
“Don’t Pass Me By” is a “White Album” track that I’m not crazy about, but singer-songwriter Emilia Dahlin made me a fan with an acoustic guitar and a retro-sounding vocal effect.
Singer-songwriter Eric Bettencourt covers “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” and with sensational piano licks, the song takes an unexpected turn when rapper Spose jumps in dropping Beatles bombs. “We make the paperback writer turn off Microsoft word/Make Eleanor Rigby have to text me she misses me/Meet me in the octopus’ garden, hug me and kiss me.” Then Bettencourt comes in with his gritty vocals that I’ve loved for years.
I don’t typically go for the “heavy stuff,” but everyone has to rock out proper from time to time, and I have Murcielago to thank for getting me to do just that with its blistering take on “Helter Skelter.” The original already is already a savage beast of awesomeness, and Murcielago kicked it up more than a few notches.
The final song I’ll mention is by Sibylline. The atmospheric folk band is lead singer/guitarist Hannah Daman, Megan Martelle on violin and vocals, Francesca Martelle on violin, mandolin and vocals, and drummer Dan Capaldi. They made “Revolution 1” into a dreamy, floaty tune with wisps of strings and captivating harmonies.
Now for the story behind the album and the deal-io with The Maine Embassy. Jeff Beam responded to my flurry of questions and told me that The Maine Embassy is a hub for local, regional and national music happenings in Maine. “It’s not really a music blog, a record label or a collective, but it’s also a little bit of all these things.” The goal is to host concert listings for all music happenings in Maine with a focus on the Portland area. “The music scene as a whole sorely needs a central rallying point as community, and I’m hoping The Maine Embassy can provide that,” explained Beam.
But what about the Beatles tribute album? Beam considers The Beatles to be the greatest musicians of the 20th century and “The White Album” something quite special. “It’s a collection of songs that everyone can feel like are a part of, or that they own in some way.” December of last year is when Beam took a deep dive into the album. “I was just completely floored at how varied and unhinged and beautiful and scary they all were when taken as a whole.” That was when the kernel of the idea was born, and it grew from there. “This fall is the 50th anniversary of the release of the album, and it’s my favorite album, and I wanted to celebrate it somehow. The eclectic range of songs lended itself especially well to the idea of 30 different Maine artists each covering one tune.” When I asked Beam about the task of figuring out which acts to ask and what songs they should cover, Beam said this was the fun part of the project. He also had to do some major brainstorming. “The funny part is that some folks got asked to do a song that they didn’t really like, which I usually found out after the fact. But that’s part of the fun and the challenge.” Many emails were sent out and Beam said that pretty much everyone was receptive to the idea. “It was not difficult to find folks; Maine is home to a wonderful and ample community of creative musical people.” Beam himself covers “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (and nails it). When I asked him why he chose that one, he offered a two-part response: “Because I got first pick and that song rules. As a side note, I have another White Album 50th anniversary celebration to unveil in November.” Here’s hoping that means some sort of live performance. I’ll be sure to let you know once I drag the info out of Beam in the coming weeks.
The only place to get “Beatles 1968 Portland, ME 2018” is at themaineembassy.com, where it can be downloaded for free. Beam added that if listeners like that whey hear, they can donate to The Maine Embassy. “We’ll gather up the loose change and put it towards web hosting for the online concert listings and towards mastering costs.”