Various Artists – Words: A Bee Gees Songbook (Playback Records)
An interesting look at the songwriting talents of the Gibb Brothers
With the recent release of the excellent documentary, How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, the Bee Gees are once again back in the public consciousness. In timely fashion, the Australian label Playback Records, has assembled a compilation of rare cover versions of Bee Gees’ songs, helping shed light on the songwriting side of the hit-making trio.
One of the real treats of this disc is how obscure some of this material is. Of the 27 tracks, even the most avid Bee Gees’ fan might only recognize half of these compositions. That’s because many of these were songs written, but not recorded by one of the Gibbs.
Many of these tracks date to their early years in Australia, like “Where Are You,” by Mike Furber, where you can clearly hear the Bee Gees singing backup vocals. Despite having a different vocalist, some still sound like the Gibb Brothers, like “Lady” by Johnny Young. But, others are taken in a different direction – “Raining Teardrops” by Barrington Davis, sounds more like the Kinks than the Bee Gees, while Jackie Lomax improves “One Minute Woman” by giving it a soulful treatment.
Speaking of soul, two of the best covers here are complete surprises – Nina Simone, usually known for her reinterpretations of songs, plays it completely straight on her “To Love Somebody,” while Swamp Dogg truly embodies the lyrics of “Got to Get a Message to You,” in a gritty, down-home delivery. The same can’t be said of Lulu’s “I Started a Joke.” She croons through the song, completely missing the darkness of the lyrics (she has done other excellent Bee Gees’ covers, this just isn’t one).
Of the songs you do recognize, some miss the mark simply by not being different enough. “Words” by Cilla Black is just so so because the arrangement is almost identical to the original. Ditto for The Cole Brothers’ attempt at “I Can’t See Nobody” – anyone trying to sound like Robin Gibb is doomed to fail! Only the venerable Johnny Mathis comes close with his reading of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.”
Other highlights are a stunning take on “Butterfly” by Marmalade, an excellent “Massachusetts” by the Seekers, which actually dates from 2003, and “Turn of the Century” by the sunshine pop group the Cyrkle.
The liner notes through me off at first – I don’t think I’ve ever seen annotation that didn’t follow the track order. Instead, they group the songs roughly of when they were written, giving incredibly in-depth insight along the way.
Sadly, there will never be any new Bee Gees’ music. Yet, this is kind of the next best thing – an entire disc of great Gibb songs performed by other people. An incredibly enjoyable listen throughout. —Tony Peters