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Instrumental Asylum

Swingin' Sting? Bluegrass Bruce? Rhapsodic R.E.M.? CMH Records has given Eighties faves a musical makeover.

I told Haerle I had to have this sent immediately.

A day later, Pickin' on Hendrix arrives with its flaming-banjo art and "File This Release in the Jimi Hendrix Bin" sticker carefully affixed. I'm kind of disappointed that there's no banjo feedback à la the Monks here, and "The Star-Spangled Banner" is pretty much just your standard bluegrass national anthem that could have squatted comfortably on a Homer and Jethro record. But that's jes' nitpickin', since "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" sounds like it's time to start the Family Fe-uuud. Biggest bit of fun was playing Name That Tune with "Are You Experienced." Just proves what I've always said: A song that was originally recorded backward and played forward can be made to sound like bluegrass!

Bluegrassed out for the time being, I'm ready to go to Swingin' to Sting & the Police and trace the lineage between "Chattanooga Choo Choo" and "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da." Fans of new swing sets like the Cherry Poppin' Daddies will have a hard time dancing the lindy hop to much of this, as this is more of a listening album -- equal parts Les Brown, Glenn Miller and Doc Severinsen. Producer/arranger Jim McMillen insists he's no Big Daddy bandwagon jumper while admitting, "CMH asked me to do a series of tribute albums in the swing idiom because it's very popular these days." Playing trombone in big bands for years has given McMillen a far broader definition of swing than your average hep cat with a Louis Jordan fixation. "For me, swing encompasses everything from late Dixieland in the 1920s through the modern big-band sound of today," he says. Shows how much I know. I didn't even know there was an early Dixieland.

Sting (far left) jumpin’ and jivin’ with his new swing buddies.
Garth Weber
Sting (far left) jumpin’ and jivin’ with his new swing buddies.
Greetings from Hazzard County, Kentucky: The Boss is comin' to liberate ya, confiscate ya  --  with a banjo on his knee.
Garth Weber
Greetings from Hazzard County, Kentucky: The Boss is comin' to liberate ya, confiscate ya -- with a banjo on his knee.

But there's more to "Sting" and "swing" than an obvious rhyming scheme -- otherwise, the Promise Ring, Evelyn "Champagne" King or Blink 182 would've gotten the nod. "There's a lot of sophisticated harmonies in Sting's writing that translated well into the swing idiom," McMillen remarks. "I did an informal survey among my friends about what artist they thought would be a likely candidate to launch the series. But when Swingin' to Sting came up and one gal said, 'Man, I'd buy that record twice' -- that was the clincher."

Swingin' to Sting is the most eclectic of the three new CMH sets, and McMillen has included tips o' the hat not only to Sting but to jazz greats like Miles Davis ("Englishman in New York") and Fletcher Henderson ("De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da"), while "Roxanne" ventures into virgin reggae/swing territory. Here's where I spell relief -- no more of Sting's off-the-banana-boat Jamaican accent on "Message in a Bottle" to lead you to "despair-O." Only a few of the song arrangements deviate significantly from the original lyrical mood. The obsessive-compulsive "Don't Stand So Close to Me" has both paranoid harmonies and circular guitar lines that won't have you thinking of Lolita unless she was involved in a bad drug deal going down on The Streets of San Francisco. Speaking of TV themes, the album's new take of "Every Breath You Take" sounds suspiciously like Neal Hefti's "Odd Couple Theme." "I went over that one every which way but loose and couldn't get it into something else," McMillen fesses. No apology is necessary, Jim. I'll just imagine Sting stalking Oscar Madison with a Dustbuster.

A Swingin' to Michael Jackson is now in the works, but I voice concern that hitching the increasingly unpopular King of Pop to swing will doom this wonderful series to oblivion, and the world will never get to hear Swingin' to Tori Amos. McMillen is hearing none of it. "Things go in cycles," he muses.

That's probably what they said to Vivaldi. "Groups of violas are on their way out, Viv. You want a harpsichord!" Which brings us to the third and equally fine installment -- The String Quartet Tribute to R.E.M, a CMH/Vitamin release. The String Quartet really is doing R.E.M. a favor by performing throwaway material like "Crush With Eyeliner" and "Man on the Moon" as if it were Bernard Herrmann's score for Vertigo or Psycho. Not only does this album rock harder than Stipe and company's last few snorefests, it's clearly the cutting-edge psychedelic album they've been trying to make since Automatic for the People and haven't been able to pull off.

The String Quartet (or T.S.Q., as the kids are surely gonna call 'em) remembered how R.E.M.'s earliest and best stuff always had some counter-melody track or airport arrival announcement buried way down low in the mix. These cat-gut scrapers get that same psycho-acoustics effect on "Catapult," although I'm guessing they sent the second violin player down numerous dumbwaiters before arriving at the right dissonance.

T.S.Q., man, they're perfectionists. The members of R.E.M. are just a bunch of randomizers who grow lazier with each outing. How can they sleep at night, knowing a generic string quartet from British Columbia is besting their finest work songs? T.S.Q. is also a cocky bunch, sequencing "Radio Free Europe" and "Catapult" one right after the other as if to say, "Look, you wankers, it's the same song, but look what wecan do with it." And they've come up with the first version of "Shiny, Happy People" that doesn't make me retch, even with the "Can-Can" worked in.

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