The White Album 2004 [no label 2CD]

Live at 3 Kings, Clerkenwell, London Aug 7, 2004.

It was probably Phish who kickstarted the fashion for recreating entire albums onstage, with their annual Halloween shindigs dragging any number of much-vaunted legends out of the archive, for an evening's going over. And for that, we should be grateful, as some of the most intriguingly enjoyable live recordings of the last few years stem from the same well of inspiration. Robyn Hitchcock, of course, has already been down this route once, with his recreation of Bob Dylan's legendary Royal Albert Hall performance; now it's the Beatles that come under his microscope; and, perhaps needless to say, the result is as close to perfection as any bunch of Fabs covers could be.

According to who you're listening to, the White Album is either the most blissfully complete, or the most appallingly indulgent, album in the Beatles canon, but the fact that a far superior single disc could be created from its four sides is irrelevant. There's a seamless flow to the album as is, that no amount of revisionism and re-editing could recreate, a slide through a multitude of moods that builds with inexorable tension towards the savage denouement of "Revolution #9" - and who cares that it's the most unlistenable song in the catalog? The very knowledge that it's there, waiting at the almost-end of side four, is enough to fill the stoutest heart with trepidation.

Hitchcock understands that fear. Retreading the original album track by track across two CDs, sometimes brilliantly, occasionally with uncertainty, he twists his own interpretation of that mounting tension throughout, until even a lovely rendition of "Sexy Sadie" seems almost vampiric; "Long Long Long" is foreboding and "Cry Baby Cry" is positively terrifying. Pour après moi, le deluge.

There are few false steps in sight, and most of them are the rockers - "Helter Skelter," "Savoy Truffle" and "Birthday" (always the most hateful song on the original album) are all rushed through with more grimness than abandon. But they are balanced by a superb "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," charming takes on "Piggies" and "Honey Pie," and a version of "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da" that treats the song with all the respect it truly deserves. And then there's "Revolution #9," which no-one in their right mind would even dream of attempting to cover with any degree of faithfulness. So, of course, Hitchcock does, complete with samples from the original recording and, judging from the audience response, a lot of messing around onstage.

Is this the best Beatles covers album ever? That depends upon how you view Hitchcock as a whole, for this is as much his performance as it is the Beatles' music. But if you've tired of hearing the original LP, but still want to fall beneath the white album's spell, step right this way. - Dave Thompson

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