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A tribute to George and a new one from Ringo

Long after McDonald’s has flipped its last burger, the Beatles franchise will continue to flourish. Occasionally it will serve up fast food for the soul, like 2000’s 1 (Capitol), the 27-hit collection that rocketed up the charts and packed the same comfort level as a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. But like the chain started by burger guru Ray Kroc, the enduring legacy of John, Paul, George, and Ringo also has a tendency to spark less satisfying products.

Two new spinoffs from the Beatles realm — Ringo Starr’s solo album Ringo Rama and Songs from the Material World: A Tribute to George Harrison (both on Koch) — are as unspectacular as the McRib and the Shamrock Shake. At least the former was made by a Beatle and provides a reason for Starr to get behind his drum kit and mount another of his summer tours with a band of aging cronies. If nothing else, Ringo has charm that no amount of lame pop-metal guitars, dull arrangements, and uninspired songwriting can bury.

The same might be said for many of the songs of George Harrison, though few survive their brutish treatment on the new tribute compilation, which was released in February to mark what would have been the late guitarist/singer’s 60th birthday. A portion of its proceeds benefit the Material World Charitable Foundation, which Harrison established in 1973 as an umbrella organization that makes donations to human-services providers like hospitals and children’s charities. For the most part, that’s where the good things about this CD end. After Todd Rundgren’s skillful studio-nerd re-creation of Harrison’s Beatles masterpiece " While My Guitar Gently Weeps, " which features a pair of zingy psychedelic guitar solos that are the best six-string he’s recorded in decades, the rest of the disc is a long downhill ride.

LA studio heathens Masters of Reality manage a vaguely creepy take on " Devil’s Radio, " but that entry from Harrison’s 1987 solo disc Cloud Nine is one of his weaker numbers. And though ex-Kink Dave Davies delivers a pleasant " Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth), " the song lacks its transcendent sensibility without Harrison’s graceful high voice. Black Crow Marc Ford’s " I Me Mine " is deadpan. Big Head Todd and the Monsters prove once again that they’re just a lucky bar band on " Within You, Without You, " and they get beaten in that category by the Smithereens’ " I Want To Tell You. " And there’s no excuse for ex-Mountain frontman Leslie West’s blues-rock mangling of the artful " Old Brown Shoe, " or the atrocity committed on " Taxman " by Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings — perhaps the world’s worst big-budget R&B/blues band.

MC 5 survivor Wayne Kramer does give his all to " It’s All Too Much, " generating a soaring wall of guitars and keyboards. But his vocal performance is an utter failure, plagued by tonelessness and intonation problems. And ex-Wilco member Jay Bennett’s " Isn’t It a Pity " is, well, dull as an old brown shoe. Perhaps the best indicator of the crap level here is that one of the best covers is a tart, dark-edged " Savoy Truffle " by They Might Be Giants, a band whose cloying, smarmy humor wore out its welcome almost a decade ago.

The best tribute to Harrison, who died on November 29, 2001, remains his own occasionally sublime recordings, solo or with the Beatles. And his estate already channels a portion of the income from great releases like his All Things Must Pass (Capitol) and Living in the Material World (Dark Horse) and the Beatles’ " Think for Yourself " to his charity. In other words, there’s really no need for Songs from the Material World.

Starr’s Ringo Rama is a thoroughly ham-fisted affair, but at least it gives us a chance to see a Beatle other than the ubiquitous Paul McCartney. Lines like " Remember when I said it don’t come easy/That seems so long ago " seem to be winning the hearts of nostalgic critics at Rolling Stone and other mainstream publications, critics who contrive not to notice that the generic playing and Ringo’s capable vocal delivery add up to basic studio hackery. To say nothing of these songs, which seesaw between well-intentioned reminiscences like " Never Without You " — an ode to the late Harrison — and bonehead anthems like " I Think Therefore I Rock and Roll. " Even Eric Clayton and David Glimmer, who turn in two guitar solos apiece, get sucked into this swamp of mediocrity.

The album’s few good moments arrive at its tail, when producer Mark Hudson’s bombast is stripped away and Ringo’s charm comes to the fore in three songs of humor and warmth. Two celebrate the joys of his home life; " Elizabeth Reigns " is a gentle satire of England’s royal tradition. They’re contemporary equivalents of the Beatles’ slight-but-nice " Octopus’ Garden. " Still, if given a choice, I’d go with a Quarter Pounder.

Issue Date: May 2 - 8, 2003
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