Mash it up, baby


November 21, 2006


Despite the fact that the Beatles broke up 36 years ago and two of them are no longer with us, it probably goes without saying that Capitol Records will never tire of selling us new product, or that fans -- and who isn't, really? -- will never tire of buying it.

Little more than shiny new repackagings of familiar old sounds, "The Beatles 1" best-of has sold almost 11 million copies since 2002, when it followed the "Anthology" collections of the mid-'90s in generating more income than many Third World countries. Now comes "Love," the much-hyped two-disc set -- one conventional CD and one DVD with a 5.1 surround sound mix but no video -- arriving in record stores today and spinning off the multimedia Cirque du Soleil production, which has been generating $2.3 million in ticket sales weekly since opening at the Mirage in Las Vegas last June.

As a critic positioned between the baby boom -- I was born the year the Fabs arrived in America, too young to experience Beatlemania but growing up with the music as a constant backdrop -- and its Generation Y offspring, who primarily know the likes of "Yesterday" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" as elevator music, I'm all in favor of any project that reclaims these sounds from the dustbin of history and the rosy glow of nostalgia and attempts to recontextualize them for a new era and fresh ears.

For my money, the best effort along these lines is "The Grey Album," the 2004 mash-up of "The Beatles" (a k a "The White Album") and Jay-Z's "The Black Album" engineered by DJ Danger Mouse, the New York producer and sample artist who went on to considerable success with Gorillaz and Gnarls Barkley. Available only as an Internet bootleg and never sanctioned by Capitol or the Beatles, who did their best to stamp it out, "The Grey Album" nevertheless offered a brilliant way for old fans to hear Beatles music in a new way, and for young listeners to discover the group on their own terms, instead of those of their parents and VH1.

Venerated Beatles producer George Martin and his 37-year-old son Giles, who wrote commercial jingles before producing Kula Shaker and INXS, clearly had "The Grey Album" in mind while crafting "Love," and they've given it props in numerous interviews. But "Love" isn't really a mash-up, despite their use of the term, since it doesn't combine two different artists in fresh and unexpected ways. The 26 tracks are really just high-tech remixes -- albeit sonically gorgeous ones -- that pepper snippets of some Beatles tunes on top of longer parts of others, utilizing a total of 37 classics.

As such, "Love" isn't even as inventive as Paul McCartney's overlooked electronic frolics with house DJ Youth ("strawberries oceans ships forest" in 1993 and "Rushes" in 1998) and Welsh psychedelic-popsters the Super Furry Animals ("Liverpool Sound Collage," 2000). It's really just the sort of album designed to be heard in faux-hipster chain coffeehouses and fashion boutiques, putting the slightest electronic patina on what's essentially as safe, sound and commercially friendly as Muzak. It's pleasant listening, to be sure -- it's the Beatles, for goodness' sake, so how could it not be? But it certainly isn't an artistic accomplishment, much less any sort of brave new world.

Moments such as the rollicking drums on "Sgt. Pepper (Reprise)" combining with the soulful groove of "Get Back"; the orchestral swell of "A Day in the Life" augmenting the driving guitars of "A Hard Day's Night," and the mergers of, "Hey Bulldog" with "Lady Madonna" and "Tomorrow Never Knows" with "Within You, Without You" provide an initial thrill, but that fades long before the tracks do.

Other mixes fail from the start. Putting the strings from "Good Night" on top of Ringo Starr's vocals from "Octopus's Garden" only makes that failed children's ditty more cloying, and the beautiful opening of "Blackbird" is only tarnished by the prompt segue into the beyond-tired and ubiquitous "Yesterday."

The only "new" additions to the billion-dollar catalog come via George Martin's recently crafted string arrangement for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and the restoration of John Lennon's original acoustic opening for "Strawberry Fields Forever." Those will be enough to send a few Beatlemaniac ultra-completists to the record stores, while the general fans will buy this because they always do, just as they lapped up "The Beatles 1" even though they already owned all the songs.

As for a new generation downloading these grooves into their iPods, I just don't see it. "Love" is a noble and exciting idea professionally executed but lacking any real vision, daring or commitment, and it's ultimately as ersatz, glitzy, superficial and commercially oriented as the Vegas spectacles that spawned it.