Before the release of The White Album, The Beatles had embarrassed themselves in the greater pop culture eye with their Magical Mystery Tour made-for-TV movie. They had stopped touring. John Lennon and Yoko Ono were doing their David St. Hubbins and Jeanine Pettibone thing, George Martin was bored and distracted with other projects, and the band’s lead engineer up and quit, leaving them somewhat adrift during the album’s studio sessions.
The band members were a hot mess of competing influences, from Eastern spirituality (Harrison), dandyism (McCartney) and heroin (Lennon), and pretty much everyone was mad at each other for something. Despite all of this — or perhaps because of it — the Beatles put out their most fascinating, storied album, a legendary entry into the annals of rock and roll with a whole bucket of hits. It spent a total of 155 weeks on the Billboard 200 and nine weeks at number one.
With this knowledge of the sordid details of The White Album’s emergence, I find a certain juiciness in the fact that Portland composer/musician Jeff Beam chose this particular album to debut the Maine Embassy, a "music hub" and website designed to consolidate the city’s music scene and its resources. This is a real choice, Beam.
Before we get to any of the slyer aspects of making that choice in this music community, let’s talk about this recreation of The White Album, entitled Beatles 1968/Portland Maine 2018. I’m not going to front with you: it’s so fucking awesome. 30 artists from Maine each contributed a track to the record, their only directive to turn in their own version of the song assigned to them by Beam. The intention, via the press release, was to provide “a slice of the Maine music scene heard through the lens of one of pop music’s most eccentric and eclectic collections of songs.”
I mean, mission accomplished. This compilation absolutely knocks it out of the park. The approach each artist takes to the song they were assigned could take up this entire paper, so we’ll make do with some hot takes and highlights. A handful of purists go for relatively faithful adaptations of their songs, including Dominic Lavoie’s rendition of “Dear Prudence,” Murcielago’s “Helter Skelter,” and Beam’s own loving, reverent cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” On the opposite end of that spectrum, certain artists take things completely off the rails. Five of The Eyes’ wild, emancipating “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” Sean Morin’s inspired, intergalactic version of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” and Builder of the House’s grimly collapsed distillation of “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” top that list.
There’s a giddy excitement and intimacy to some of these covers, a dog whistle to the truest of Beatles obsessives. Kate Beever’s phrasing on “Rocky Raccoon” could only come from someone who has had a close relationship with the song; the yarn she’s spinning feels as if it came from her. SeepeopleS’ version of “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” gleefully deploys an air horn and silly voices, and satirizes the original’s clapping outro to truly funny effect; it’s an affectionate inside joke. Sea Level’s “Martha My Dear” shows off Dan Capaldi’s vocal range and capacity for drama, bringing a gravity to the song that isn’t present in the original. Spose even shows up on Eric Bettencourt’s “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” I’m sure someone has rapped Beatles lyrics before, but it’s unexpected here.
The album isn’t consistent, and I’m not sure it’s necessarily meant to pay homage to the Beatles, either. It seems meant to look inward, at our own artists right here in Maine. To that end, covers like Sunset Hearts’ bright, layered “Goodnight,” Emilia Dahlin’s bossa nova-flecked “Don’t Pass Me By,” and Greasy Grass’ laid back, psychedelic “Back in the USSR” truly show off the artists’ own styles. Not just their talent — all of these artists are fantastic players — but who they are, what you get when you find their original works on Spotify and take a leap of faith. This isn’t Beatles Night, it's the opposite — it’s a familiar lens through which we’re meant to view something unknown.
There is a nice balance of men and women artists on the compilation. People of color are vastly underrepresented, despite the multi-racial music community to which the greater Portland area plays host. It takes deliberate acts of intention — and hard work — to bring all of Maine's different cultural groups together, and my hope for the next Maine Embassy project would be to endeavor to be more inclusive. Not just for the sake of building a healthier community — I have a genuine interest in what, say, Afri Dundada would do with maybe “Cry Baby Cry” or how Achene would spin “I’m So Tired” into some otherworldly cocoon. This is a seldom-turned stone in Portland’s music scene at the moment, and I can’t wait for leadership outside of the hip hop scene to step up and figure it out.
Let’s get back to why Beam’s choice of the Beatles’ most troubled-in-production, game-changing album as inspirational fodder for this project is so apt. The Maine music “scene” (if you can even call it that at the moment) is broken, and changing. Collaboration and mutual support exists at a bare minimum, and the same political and socioeconomic pressures that are breaking down our communities at large are eating away at what should be a tight-knit group of music makers and facilitators. It’s very Lord of The Flies out there at the moment.
Was it Jeff Beam’s intention to make a kind of oblique statement on the eroding condition of Maine’s musicians while simultaneously offering a stage on which to parade their massive gifts? Is the point of this record for artists to find a renewed love for our own community despite our petty differences? To encourage us to click the blue thumb when a fellow artist posts an achievement rather than withholding appreciation and stewing in self-loathing envy? We’ll have to ask Beam next time we see him. In the meantime, a recommendation: seek out The Beatles 1968/Portland Maine 2018 if you have even a passing interest in local music. No risk, no reward.
The Maine Embassy: Beatles 1968/Portland Maine 2018 | Various Artists | themaineembassy.bandcamp.com/album/the-beatles-1968-portland-maine-2018