A-pickin' and a-grinnin' over a new musical discovery

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Music is supposed to be the universal language, but a swish pan across your CD collection and mine will only illustrate how much music keeps us apart. Only a fraction of the stuff can we both listen to without forcing infomercial smiles. Half of my enjoyment of music stems from listening without knowing whether I'm going to hate something or not, whereas most people are like radio programmers who just want the hits and shun music outside the 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 1? Or The Beatles Song Book as performed by the Hollyridge Strings -- an album that Capitol Records had the effrontery to flog on the sleeve 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 after John Lennon's "bigger than Jesus" remark, and you'll see a copy or two of The Beatles Song Book catching fire. Even God-fearing kids got taken in by that Capitol shuck, probably thinking The Beatles Song Book was a greatest-hits LP. Yet in that defining Beatle-hating moment, even these teenage Jesuits could find no room in their hearts for the heinous Hollyridge Strings -- or, moreover, the tasteless way in which a Stradivarius can be strong-armed into plucking out the melody of "And I Love Her" pizzicato-style or depreciate enough to groan the "da da da da da dum dum da's" of "From Me to You."

Call me a throwback, but I actually preferred the way the world used to work, when old people hated rock music as much as young people loved it -- not only loved it but, by dint of their "they've got the guns but we got the Arbitron numbers" convictions, turned Clive Davis into a middle-aged hippie and pushed the entire middle-of-the-road music industry into a faraway ditch. Cheesed-off old people retaliated the only way they knew how -- by piping their senseless beatless renditions of pop-rock hits into every available elevator and supermarket.

This Us vs. Them standoff lasted for decades, leaving countless artifacts in its wake like Andre Kostelanetz Plays Chicago -- the band, not the city. Grandpa -- what smug liner notes you have! Who believed Maestro K was doing these young Stan Kenton wannabes a favor by devoting an entire album to their music when Chicago's first three albums were already receiving tons of airplay outside elevators and airports? Mr. Mort Goode, that's who! About the young Windy City blowhards, he writes: "(Chicago's) work has impressed their world, the under-30's," whereas "Andre Kostelanetz's work has impressed his world -- all generations."

No generation of any denomination uttered a word in Kostelanetz's defense when his ilk were banished to AM frequencies even ham-radio operators laugh at. Sit in a dentist's chair or stand on a bank line now and it's not Kostelanetz but Chicago you hear blaring at teeth-gnashing volumes. I once asked a smiling Norwest teller how she could even count money correctly with Sting's "Fields of Gold" playing so mind-numbingly loudly, and she said, "What? Oh, I don't even hear it." That clinched it. Rock, classic rock, classic rock played soft, soft rock played loud -- it's all gonna be the official audio wallpaper of the next millennium. Suddenly Puff Daddy's Sting/Christopher Cross dalliances make complete sense. You bet your ASCAP he's vying for the Muzak-maestro crown next!

Guess when you've got Snoop dogging the oldies and rock-on-rock crimes like all-star tribute albums continuing to be perpetrated, there's not much clamor for radical instrumental interpretations of '80s favorites. I was resigned to playing the Boston Pops' Saturday Night Fiedler for the 100th time when Mr. Postman delivered three strange but thoroughly enjoyable new CDs from CMH Records. Like a panacea for my weird instrumental mindjam, now I've got big-band instrumental interpretations of Sting and the Police, bluegrass renderings of Bruce Springsteen and string quartets attacking R.E.M. Background music has come to the fore to take its rightful place in the background once more. Hallelujah!

Lest you think this is a joke, I give you Pickin' on Springsteen, subtitled A Bluegrass & Country Instrumental Tribute that, according to the press release, is "guaranteed to keep you "Dancin' in the Dark' all night long!" Because 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 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.

CMH is to be commended for filling this unforeseen cultural void. When I rang up their office to do just that, CMH's media coordinator seemed a tad surprised that anyone could be this interested in CDs intended as novelty gifts or (God willing) kick-ass in-store background music. After convincing her my euphoria was genuine, she took my name and number. Thirty minutes later, I'm chatting with David Haerle, the brains behind all three releases and the president of CMH. OK, 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'm thrilled as pie to be talking to the creator of Pickin' on Springsteen, and I'm sure that 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 marketing 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 in spades and hoes. Who'd have figured Haerle would not only define a niche market for instrumental music but actually find a way to improve on the originals? Really, I'm forever cured of wanting to hear Bruce any other way!

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 codependency 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 kill the yellow man -- Charlie's outta there! This hoe-down version of "Born in the U.S.A." is about as far from Vietnam as Hazzard County!

My fave supreme, though, has got to be "Born to Run," wherein Bruce decides to ditch 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. OK, well, maybe not Nebraska -- which the cover art of Pickin' mimics but the song selection ignores. Good thing, too, because 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!

Color me tickled pink because there are already a half-dozen titles available in CMH's "Pickin' On" series. 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? I tell Haerle I've got to have this sent immediately.

A day later, Pickin' on Hendrix arrives with its flaming-banjo art and a "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've squatted comfortably on a Homer & Jethro record. But that's jes nit-pickin', 'cause "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" sounds like it's time to start the Family Fe-uuud. Biggest bit of fun is 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! And I'm guessin' it's the banjos, but from here on out, I'll think of Catherine Bach whenever I hear "Foxy Lady."

You don't have to cattle-prod Haerle to find out what's next in the series (ZZ Top -- a good choice, although I suspect we may have to wait for platinum status before Pickin' on Flaming Lips becomes a reality). I tell Haerle he should seriously consider releasing Pickin' on the Police for the incendiary title alone. "I'll put it on our ideas list," Haerle agrees. It's that kind of derange-do that has made America great.

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; it's 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 hepcat 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.

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; 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.

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