Monday, May 19, 2008

Musical Monday - Paul Anka "Rock Swings"

Good old Paul Anka (Wiki), he's thrown out conventional wisdom and done something interesting by bringing us a CD named Rock Swings (Wiki /Amazon) filled with big band swing versions of a group of unlikely songs from the previous two decades. The originals include the likes of Soundgarden, Van Halen, Nirvana, REM, even Spandau Ballet. The cool thing is that it not that it works, but that some of those unlikely songs REALLY WORK!

Not long after I arrived in Germany I was watching Wetten Dass, which for those uninitiated, is a VERY popular variety show that has probably staged every important entertainer for the past twenty years. This night we had it playing in the background as we went about cleaning the house. When I heard Showmeister, Thomas Gottschalk introduce Paul Anka I started giggling internally. The big band kicked up behind him and he got instant credibility from me when he launched into a song that took me a while to recognize it because the arrangement had been taken to a swing feel. I've slept since then, so I can't remember which song it was... but I think it was Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit". OMG! You are kidding me! It was interesting and intriguing! The next day I ordered it and was bugging N with constant play within a few days.

On the CD most of the songs are not immediately recognizable with the exception being Van Halen's "Jump"... the horn riff stands out by a mile. I dare you to take a first listen without the liner notes in front of you and try to work out the songs.

Humorous note: There is a cover of Bon Jovi's "It's My Life" which of course includes the line "Like Frankie said, I did it my way" that is referring to Frank Sinatra's "My Way". If I'm not completely mistaken, Paul wrote "My Way"... komish, oder?

Everything you expect from a classic jazz orchestra is here: smooth saxes and clarinets singing along while horns scream out over a waterfall of tinkly piano in the background. Favorite songs like Lionel Richie's "Hello" and "True" by Spandau Ballet take on a new feeling with the fluid background music pouring throughout. Billy Idol's "Eyes Without a Face" has a magic middle section when a smooth jazz guitar picks up a lovely melody halfway through. I find myself wishing that that section would continue throughout the song, but alas it is just a few bars.

Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel" is probably the easiest transition into swing. Really, if I didn't know better I would have assumed that Paul's version was the original. The point is that Paul shows us that he is adept at interpretation and is making a reasonable foray into the "Stuffy pop idol tries to go modern" gimmicky thing. Although sometimes the point of the material he is singing eludes him, as in "Smells Like Teen Spirit". I'm sorry Paul... what you've done is interesting, but you can't hope to comprehend the depth of the song... let alone interpret it. "Wonderwall" on the other hand has taken a song that I never liked at all and transformed it into something simply totally likable... this had more to do with the lovely jumpy arrangement than the lyrics that thankfully drift into the background on this piece.

Vocally sublime, this is fun music to have in the background of the right party or to crank up in the car through a traffic jam... who could be tense listening to this stuff? The songs sound shallow on the album... because they ARE shallow! This is pop music at it's finest... come on, "Eye of the Tiger"?

All in all a good vehicle to gain attention for an artist that has slipped off of the commercial radar. He's done well for himself over an illustrious career that must span at least 40 years. I wouldn't bet against a Rock Swings 2 coming out in the near future.

Here is Paul doing his version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit".

What's in my player?
"Legend" The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers

1 comment:

cliff1976 said...

I was grooving along to Smells Like Teen Spirit last year at my favorite Kurdish restaurant in town when I about fell out of my chair as I realized what it was.

I dig it. I like parodies, and even style parodies, and off-beat/fresh-take cover versions, but these take the cake. Truly top-notch stuff.