Pianist Mike McCarthy doesn’t pull any punches with Gently Sleeps, subtitling it “a calming tribute to the Beatles.” Of course, the risk there is that these solo reworkings could become so relaxing as to send us into a drowsy oblivion. McCarthy, based out of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, largely avoids that pitfall by delving into lesser-known cuts from this world-famous outfit — and that gives his album its gravitas.
“Thank You Girl” opens Gently Sleeps (due for independent release on February 7, 2014) with an appropriately ruminative atmosphere, as McCarthy leads the listener into a lullaby’s quietude. It’s as soft, as comfortable and as spacious as a pillow-top bed, until McCarthy stops short — adding a delicate, but more assertive splash of sound before returning to the familiar shape of the Beatles’ b-side to 1963’s “From Me To You.” Each time McCarthy does that, almost like resetting a music box, it forces a reevaluation of the embedded melody that follows, setting a template for the almost confessional revelations to come on Gently Sleeps.
McCarthy follows “Thank You Girl” with another b-side, this time “There’s a Place” – which initially backed 1964’s “Twist and Shout.” His elongated cadence here, in fact, brings the song closer to its initial reference point for the Beatles. Lead writer Paul McCartney was actually inspired here by “Somewhere,” a key moment from West Side Story which featured the spark-plug line: “There’s a place for us.” The Beatles, of course, proceeded to turn that impetus into a propulsive pop song. McCarthy, on the other hand, treats this piece of music with a romantic gentility that would have fit right in as part of the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim book.
“I’ll Get You,” the flip side of 1963’s “She Loves You,” pushes past these more contemplative atmospherics, eventually landing on a kind of heartfelt stoicism. John Lennon’s familiar “ooh yeah” is offered as a wistful pianistic memory, completely reformulating the slightly chauvinistic assertions on his original. The deep cut “Every Little Thing,” taken from 1964’s Beatles for Sale, never sounded so unabashedly gorgeous.
Meanwhile, “If I Needed Someone,” a Byrds-influenced song found tucked away on the following year’s Rubber Soul, is a triumph: McCarthy drills even deeper into the lovelorn melancholy that sat the heart of George Harrison’s lament. McCarthy’s take on “She Said She Said,” an outburst of early psychedelia from 1966’s Revolver, turns Lennon’s snarky aside – “she said: ‘I know what it’s like to be dead’ … and she’s making me feel like I’ve never been born” – into a swirling moment of reminiscence not unlike Elton John’s classic early-1970s recordings.
And yet the more easily identified Beatles songs emerge as lesser moments on Gently Sleeps – no doubt, because their familiarity offers fewer opportunities for true discovery with most listeners. “P.S. I Love You,” a No. 10 U.S. hit, feels like it’s dragging along. “We Can Work It Out,” the set’s only chart-topping track, is the closest Gently Sleeps gets to feeling like easily dismissed background music. The same, actually, goes for “The Night Before,” even though it’s a lesser-known cut from 1965’s Help. McCarthy simply can’t escape the shadow of the Beatles’ version, which hurtled along courtesy of a terse vocal interplay — not to mention McCartney’s serrated guitar solo. That’s the risk with any solo piano record — much less one that focuses on such a twilit mood: That the languid atmosphere can turn the music into the equivalent of aural wallpaper.
McCarthy, however, rebounds nicely with a more assertive reading of “The Word,” another often-missed song from Rubber Soul. The oaken, acoustic-based “Mother Nature’s Son” and “Blackbird,” both from the Beatles’ 1968 self-titled release, are likewise perfectly suited for this sort of reimagining. Then there’s “Good Night,” the Ringo Starr-sung lullaby that closes out the latter double album. McCarthy doesn’t so much rework this one, as strip away the broader, orchestral context of the original – thus uncovering something, as with the best moments of Gently Sleeps, elemental and deeply touching.