Frisell releases records at such a rapid fire clip that it’s necessary to separate the wheat from the flax (there is no chaff). This collection of John Lennon covers is accessible, exotically skewed, yet hewn to the template of the songwriter(s), along the lines of The Sweetest Punch (1999), parts of his East/West records (2005) and All Hat (2008). Stringing fuzzy-yarn braids and dovetails in conjunction with acoustic and steel guitarist Greg Leisz and violinist Jenny Scheinman over the mostly rocksteady rhythm section of drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Tony Scherr, Frisell has probably never been more faithful to a composer’s melodies and structures as he is to Lennon. When the late Beatle’s textural sensibility matches Frisell’s own, as on the ethereal opener “Across the Universe” or the chiming, chamber-like “In My Life,” the effect is simply gorgeous.
The biggest disappointment is Frisell’s disinclination to indulge the pub-rock side of Lennon’s personality. The force of “Revolution,” the primal “Mother” and the closing anthem “Give Peace a Chance,” are all figuratively and literally soft-pedaled, given over to swirl more than thrust. In terms of pep, the inspired, short-but-sweet pop-rock of “Please, Please Me” and the shuddering melody of “Come Together” (the “heaviest” track here) are as animated as it gets. That said, earnest renditions of Lennon songs are relatively common, and few if any ensembles can lay in and then layer the melody of a tune like “Nowhere Man” better than this crew, or fashion domestic musical bliss on a par with the creative, somewhat spontaneous arrangement of “Hold On” that happens here. Frisell has a tendency to flatten the soundscape in a manner that makes the subtle details that much more vivid. On All We Are Saying— he speaks softly but carries an exacting axe.