The MonaLisa Twins - The MonaLisa Twins play Beatles & more
Release Date: March 28, 2014
Record Label: Unsigned
As of February 9, 2014, it's been 50 years since the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, thereby beginning their revolutionary invasion of American pop culture. Five decades later, it's more clear than ever before that musicians will never stop covering the Beatles. “Yesterday” remains the most widely covered song in pop music history. Popular tributes to the Beatles range from film musicals (Across the Universe) to Broadway imitations (RAIN) to the four guys who dress up as mop tops every summer and play songs by John, Paul, George, and Ringo at my hometown’s big annual festival. The band’s songs have been the basis for episodes of Glee and American Idol. Hell, a “Grammy Salute to the Beatles” featuring high-profile pop acts like John Mayer, Keith Urban, John Legend, Alicia Keys, and Katy Perry is airing on national television as I type these words.
This is a band whose songs will never die, partially because they are great, great songs and because they served as soundtrack for an entire generation, but also because modern bands and artists will never stop replaying, recreating, and retreading those songs for long enough to let them go or give them rest. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because Beatles songs almost always sound good and it's a curse because so many of the band’s songs have become overdone. I’d heard Beatles tunes so many times before I even started exploring music that I could never see myself investing as much in the band’s music as I have with, say, Bruce Springsteen. More than any other artist, the Beatles seem like a band that belongs to the generations that came before me rather than to me personally, and I’ve never been really able to put myself into their music and make it my own as a result. I know for a fact that I’m not the only person who has this issue.
This is probably all just my way of admitting that there are no Beatles records in my all-time top 50. But that doesn’t mean I’m not a ardent fan of the band’s music, or that I can’t appreciate one of their songs whenever I hear it, whether its playing out of a jukebox or being covered by a band up on the stage. On the contrary, it was with excitement and anticipation that I first pressed play on MonaLisa Twins play Beatles & more, a compilation oldies cover album that landed in my inbox earlier this week. I wasn’t excited because I knew who the MonaLisa Twins were. Rather, I was intrigued because I knew the songs. I wasn’t rolling my eyes at another band doing a Beatles tribute/cover album, or wondering how I was going to sit through yet another version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” I was ready to hear these songs again, even if the cover versions brought nothing new to the table. And isn’t that interesting? Doesn’t it speak volumes about the universality and unparalleled accessibility of the Beatles music that I was ready to hear it again, presented in new form, by artists I knew nothing about? I don’t think it even particularly mattered how much I liked the record. I knew I was going to listen, and I knew I was going to write this review, because I already had most of that first paragraph in my mind before I even downloaded the record or pressed play.
Luckily, I do like this record. It’s nothing new, obviously. It’s the songs we’ve heard a million times before, and it’s not making any ambitious attempt to do them differently. Maybe if Tame Impala recorded the entirety of Revolver for his next record, you could expect a few curveballs, but that's not what this is. Instead, the record is delivered by two throwback pop songstresses from Austria – who really are twins named Mona and Lisa, respectively – and who recorded at least half these takes in live environments. Suffice to say, it’s a pretty no-frills cover album, but it works solely because the MonaLisa Twins are good enough musicians to pull it off.
Of course, some tracks are better than others. The live recordings, while always fun, occasionally sound a bit vocally sloppy, a fact that undermines covers of “Revolution,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and “Day Tripper” specifically. In general, the MonaLisa Twins are just far less adept at the upbeat rockers, though there is a certain charm to hearing the guitar licks and riffs from “Johnny B. Goode” (from the “and more” section of the disc) nailed with note-perfect accuracy. For the most part though, it’s the studio recorded ballads that sound the best, like the lovely lilting one-two punch of “In My Life” and “Blackbird.” The two songs are perfect examples of what both Lennon and McCartney could do with more understated songwriting textures, and both are perfectly rendered here with appropriate ache and hope from Mona and Lisa. The other home run, a blissfully layered take on the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” offers an effortlessly modern pop update on one of the greatest pop songs ever written. The sisters multi-track their vocals into a gorgeous web of harmonies and orchestrations, and the tune ends up being the album’s strongest moment as a result. It begs the question of why the MonaLisa Twins chose to retain the bizarre grab bag of studio and live recordings that defines this record, and also poses the question of how good a cover album this might have been with a more consistent and cohesive sonic balance.
As is though, MonaLisa Twins play Beatles & more is an enjoyable and well-timed tribute to the most monumental band in the history of popular music. The Beatles may never earn "favorite" status from me, but on this weekend, with five decades between us and the four clean-cut gents who stole America's hearts during the space of a single TV show broadcast, it's impossible to deny their importance, their influence, and the ability of their songs to endure long after the band that created them imploded and ceased to exist. Sure, the Beatles might not have an album on my top 50 favorites list, but I also can't for the life of me select an album or song of theirs to hold as their definitive work. This band created so much amazing music in their tumultuous 10 years together that it's damn near impossible to boil it down to one song or even a collection of 20 of them. The MonaLisa Twins do an admirable job of picking highlights and an even better job performing them, but don't be surprised it, as soon as this record finishes, all you want to do is go back to your collection of the Fab Four's records and live all those wonderful songs again. Covers are fun and all, but the originals will never be supplanted.