By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
Swingin' to Sting is the most eclectic of the three new CMH sets; 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"), and "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 swing 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 swingin' 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 is stalking Oscar Madison with a Dustbuster.
Swinging 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 I'll 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!" This brings us to the third and equally fine installment -- The String Quartet Tribute to R.E.M. All of Andre the K's elitist braggadocio about performing Chicago could apply to this 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 Herr-mann's scores for Vertigo and 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, not with John Paul Jones doing string arrangements, not even with drummer Bill Berry's resignation pointing the way to a beatless future.
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 countermelody track or airport-arrival announcement buried way down low in the mix. These catgut-scrapers get that same psychoacoustics 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. R.E.M. is just a bunch of randomizers who grow lazier with each outing. How can they sleep at night, knowing that a generic string quartet from British Columbia is besting their finest work songs?
T.S.Q. is 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 we can 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.
Thanks to CMH, I can continue to listen to background music until what passes for foreground music nowadays improves. And should I find myself schmendraked back into a dentist's chair sometime in the next millennium, I think I'd rather hear the String Quartet performing its musical root canal on R.E.M. than hear the genuine Georgian article any day -- because no one should have to hear "Everybody Hurts" sung at excessive decibels seconds before molar-induced agony. Even if the singer is a mumbler.