Contemporary Bands, Classic Songs, Eternal Relevance on ‘Stop, Hey, What’s That Sound?’

VARIOUS ARTISTS | Stop, Hey, What’s That Sound? Classic Protest Songs Reinvented | (Petaluma Records)

3 out of 5

The concept is fairly familiar: Gather a set of classic songs, recruit some up and coming artists to cover them, and then blend those disparate elements together and marvel at the results. Of course, it’s a difficult thing to recreate a timeless tune and then reconcile the familiarity of the original version with an original interpretation that finds the remake relevant enough to compare.

Given that challenge, you have to give the creative minds behind Stop, Hey, What’s That Sound? Classic Protest Songs Reinvented credit for at least making an attempt. Given today’s turbulence, disenchantment and vitriol, it’s a sad fact that the songs of discontent that rallied the masses during another apocalyptic era ring with an equal urgency today. And yet while the original versions still hold up as decidedly and demonstratively today as they did half a century ago, it’s also  fitting that a new generation should take up the protest banner and let their voices be heard as well.

The problem is however that so few songs sharing that insurgence stance have surfaced in the past 50 years. They’re hardly as evident now as they once were, given that music seems to focus more on image that ideology. Indeed, artists that look exotic, erotic or just plain bizarre, and then surround themselves with a dozen dancers, get far more attention than those that sound the alarm. Rap music may have become a vehicle for sharing dissent, but far too often its accompanied by a didactic delivery that alienates as many people as it informs.

At its essence then, the dozen songs that encompass Stop, Hey, What’s That Sound? Classic Protest Songs Reinvented find its interpreters walking a fine line, one that has to appeal to today’s hipper devotees while still echoing the message implicit in each of the offerings.

As a result, the majority of these tracks bear little resemblance to the versions forever inscribed in the public’s collective consciousness. Dawn Landes’s contemplative interpretation of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,  Jonah Smith’s simple piano version of the Beatles’ “Revolution,” and Renee Holiday and Nigel Harrison’s fiery take on Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” come the closest as ready recognition is concerned, but even in those cases, there’s ample amounts of craft and creativity imbued as well. 

Some of the selections are simply unrecognizable. Victoria Reed totally retools CSNY’s “Ohio” by diminishing the anguish and empathy of the original. Fiona Silver makes Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” less of a furtive plea and more of a dream-like dirge. Likewise, the subdued sound Sasha Dobson shares on Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” makes the song sound wispy and willowy at best. 

The most extreme deviation results when Lolo reduces CCR’s “Fortunate Son” into a hodgepodge of noise and nonsense, and Prince Rama take Norman Greenbaum’s lingering classic “In the Year 2525” and elevate all the eerier elements in ways that suggest several doses of acid were added to whatever Kool Aid concoction they imbibed beforehand.

The fact that the vast majority of the artists taking part in this production aren’t especially well known doesn’t help with the familiarity factor either, although it does make it easier to understand why most are prone to deviate so dramatically from the signature sound. They may be intent on establishing the kind of presence that will make people sit up and take notice. 

However that’s the difference between then and now. Weirdness may work today, but there was once a time when the music and the message did best when they stayed in sync.

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