Instant Karma is not just your usual all-star tribute album. All the net proceeds go to the Amnesty International Fund for Darfur. Others have written about the crisis with much more authority than I. Suffice it to say that things are very bad there and have been for a while. So buying this album will help send some money toward that situation but the situation is complex and it will not be easily remedied. Nonetheless, I'm glad that people are raising awareness about it.
Some of those people are the artists on this wonderful new compilation album, Instant Karma. Yoko allowed these artists to record songs from John Lennon's solo career without paying any royalties so the organization (Make Some Noise) could release an album of other artists covering Lennon's music. Over 50 artists participated – so many that there are alternate versions of the album in the US and the UK , bonus tracks available at some stores and at itunes. I downloaded the bonus version of the album from itunes because it had ELEVEN extra tracks. I actually didn't buy this album right away when it came out because, frankly, most of the artists don't get me real excited but I started sampling tracks and heard more and more that I liked and, when I clicked on the Postal Service version of "Grow Old With Me" I just had to get the album. And I'm really glad I did.
Almost without exception I like every one of the 34(!) tracks on this record. Now, it is no secret that I like the Beatles so I was already a fan of these songs (and I, of course, have the original versions). But most of these artists put a new twist on their versions and made me enjoy them in a new way. U2's version of "Instant Karma" is great, of course but, believe it or not, so is Duran Duran's! (OK, maybe it's not "great" but at least it's pretty good.) Christina Aguilera singing "Mother?" This is an idea that I might have paid money NOT to listen to but, you know what? She does OK. I was really surprised by how much I like Big and Rich's version of "Nobody Told Me" and Regina Spektor haunting take on "Real Love" is wonderful. I'm not a Green Day fan but I like what they did with "Working Class Hero." Jakob Dylan (Bob's son) and Dhani Harrison (George's son) do a fine job on "Gimme Some Truth" with Dhani's slide guitar sounding like a cross between his father and Derek Trucks. The list just goes on and on. The Fab Faux (a high-class Beatles cover band) does "I Don't Wanna Face It" like the Beatles might have done it if Lennon had written it when they were together, complete with a typical McCartney bass line (patterned after "Rain") and delightful guitar double leads (like "And Your Bird Can Sing.") That one's definitely a highlight for me. Truth in advertising: I don't care much for Lenny Kravitz version of "Cold Turkey." But of the other 33 tracks, even bands I had never heard of caught my ear.
This says something about the strength of the original material, much of which comes from the period right at the end of Lennon's life; Double Fantasy, the album that just hit the charts when Lennon was shot in 1980 and the posthumously released Milk and Honey (which Lennon was making when he was shot and is really the twin to Double Fantasy.). Actually, these were both Lennon/Ono albums with John and Yoko alternating songs. So there are only 7 Lennon songs on Double Fantasy but 5 of them are on Instant Karma (more, I believe than from any other Lennon album). There were only 6 Lennon songs on Milk and Honey (including the gorgeous "Grow Old With Me" which Lennon never properly recorded – all we have is a demo) and 4 of them appear on Instant Karma. So it's pretty clear that Lennon was in a really good place musically when he was killed. It's a shame that he wasn't able to make more music. Fortunately, we have his recordings (including the revelatory 4-disc Anthology) and we have this wonderful album of new takes on his old songs. Even if you don't like compilations and tribute albums this one is worth getting.