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Instrumental Asylum

Half of my enjoyment of music stems from listening without knowing whether or not I'm going to hate something, while many people are like radio programmers who just want the hits and rarely stray from a chosen format. And unlike most folks, I still own records.

Lots of stupid ones.

Even I find many of my impulsive thrift-shop purchases indefensible. How can I explain this inappropriate fascination with albums like The Manhattan Strings Play Songs Made Famous by the Monkees? The London Symphony Orchestra's fatal stabbing of Classic Rock, Volume One? Or The Beatles Songbook as performed by the Hollyridge Strings -- an album that Capitol Records had the effrontery to flog on the rear sleeves of Beatles '65 and Something New under the wishful banner "More Great Albums for Your Beatles Collection!" (Look closely at that old footage of Bible Belt kids burning Beatles records in bonfires following Lennon's "bigger than Jesus" remark and you'll see a copy or two of The Beatles Songbook catching fire. In that defining Beatle-hating moment, even those teenage Jesuits, who probably thought The Beatles Songbook was a greatest-hits LP, could find no room in their hearts for the Hollyridge Strings. Or, for that matter, the tasteless way in which a Stradivarius can be strong-armed into plucking out the melody of "And I Love Her.")

These days, with Snoop dogging the oldies and the continuing perpetration of such rock-on-rock crimes as tribute albums, there isn't much clamor for similarly curious instrumental interpretations of, say, Eighties favorites. In light of this, I was resigned to simply playing the Boston Pops' Saturday Night Fiedler a hundred more times when Mr. Postman delivered three strange but thoroughly enjoyable new CDs from CMH Records. Like a panacea for my weird instrumental mindjam, I've now got big-band instrumental interpretations of Sting and the Police, bluegrass renderings of Bruce Springsteen and string quartets attacking R.E.M.

Lest this seem like a joke, I present Pickin' on Springsteen, subtitled "A Bluegrass & Country Instrumental Tribute" that is "guaranteed to keep you 'Dancin' in the Dark' all night long!" Since CMH Records has been a specialty bluegrass label for 24 years, home to every picker from Grandpa Jones to Lester Flatt, it seemed natural that once everyone with a dobro and a five-string banjo recorded a version of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" for posterity, the titans of twang would turn their musical antennae elsewhere. Like Asbury Park.

Let's say you've always dug early Springsteen but detested those slick, citified Saturday Night Live sax solos Bruce stuck in to give the Big Man something to do. Or say you tired of the Boss's co-dependency on words like "darkness," "nights" and "streets." Well, CMH's pickin' party eliminates all that. And if you conscientiously objected to Bruce's going off to fight in Vietnam, Charlie's outta there! This hoedown version of "Born in the USA" is about as far from Southeast Asia as Hazzard County!

My fave supreme, though, has got to be "Born to Run," which ditches Wendy to give Granny and Ellie Mae a ride. Forget the runaway American dream: Next stop, Hooterville! Trade in those wings for some wheels, preferably attached to a stinky ol' truck, I say. That's what the Bruce of Nebraska and Tom Joad would do. Okay, well, maybe not Nebraska -- which the cover art of Pickin' mimics but the song selection ignores. Good thing, too, since nothing spoils a hot time in the ol' town like bodies turning up in a shallow grave. And in case you had your Tom Hank-a-chief at the ready, even the AIDS-aware "Streets of Philadelphia" sounds just a shade or two away from being chipper!

CMH is to be commended for filling this unforeseen cultural void. When I rang up their office to do just that, the company's media coordinator seemed a tad surprised that anyone could be this interested in CDs that are intended as novelty gifts or (God willing) kick-ass in-store background music. Yet thirty minutes later I was chatting with David Haerle, the brains behind all three releases and the president of CMH. Okay, so it's not exactly like talking to Victor Kiam, the former Remington president who loved their microshaver so much he bought the entire company, but, heck, I was thrilled as pie to be talking to the creator of Pickin' on Springsteen, and I'm sure if someone were to play it for the former razor king, he might opt to buy out CMH Records, too.

"Bluegrass has its standards, so there's a certain excitement in taking all the great songs out there and doing them in a quirky bluegrass style," offers Haerle. "And I'm certain among Bruce fans, there are some bluegrass fans, too." Amazing yet true -- no market research was behind this decision to bottle Bruce in a corn jug! Just a hunch on Haerle's part, a hunch that I'm convinced will pay off. Who'd have figured that Haerle would not only define a niche market for instrumental music, but he'd actually find a way to improve on the originals? Really -- I'm forever cured of wanting to hear Bruce any other way! And color me tickled pink, because there are already a half-dozen titles available in CMH's Pickin' On series. Haerle rattled them off for me: There's Pickin' on the Beatles (plenty o' Ringo, I'll bet), Pickin' on the Eagles, Pickin' on the Grateful Dead (a big seller, because Jerry's kids know he started out playing bluegrass), Pickin' on Dylan and -- WHOA! What's this? Pickin' on Hendrix?

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic

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