None Dare Call It Music

My taste in music has been described in a variety of terms. “Unusual.” “Eclectic.” “Execrable.” “Off-beat.” “Atrocious.” “Odd.” “Juvenile.” “Pedestrian.”

Well, I freely admit that most of those are fairly accurate. I am a devotee of Genesis, with my preferences for the latter Gabriel years and the middle to end Collins era. (I just can’t get into “Trespass,” “Trick Of The Tail,” and “…And Then There Were Three…” albums, and large portions of “Foxtrot” and “The Musical Box” leave me cold. I’d also like to banish the song “Invisible Touch” and most of the Phil Collins weepy-whiny songs from “Duke” and “Abacab” and “Genesis” from existence.)

I also have a complete set of Weird Al Yankovic’s stuff. I occasionally mix it up with Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out Of Hell” albums.

but it’s the novelty stuff that really gets me. I seem to enjoy music that embraces two or more wildly divergent and contrasting elements. And two of those I discovered through, of all things, NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday.

The first is one of the odder bands I’d ever heard of. Bering Strait was, of all things, Russian bluegrass band.

To me, I think of them as like salt. Salt is composed of two elements — sodium and chlorine — that are extremely toxic. But combined, they form a substance that is essential to life.

I loathe country music, and bluegrass is particularly noxious to me. And I’ve never been overly fond of Russia to begin with. But when these Russians start playing, I find myself swept up — their music is just plain fun, and the singers have only the barest hint of Russian accents — just enough to toss an odd lilt and slightly unusual cadence that makes your ears prick up.

Check out the samples.

But that’s just a prelude to one of my favorite albums, and it usually gets tagged as a “novelty” or “tribute” record: George Martin’s “In My Life.”

Sir George was often called “the fifth Beatle,” and he produced most of their albums. In the late 90’s, he got the idea of getting a bunch of people to record covers of Beatles songs. He reached out both to musicians and non-musicians, linking up folks with songs that he thought would produce interesting pieces. And the results are remarkable.

It’s kind of hit and miss. His own recordings of “The Pepperland Suite” and “Friends And Lovers” are, to me, kind of forgettable. Vanessa-Mae’s “Because” is pretty eh. And John Williams’ recording of “Here Comes The Sun” is fairly blah — surprising, because I’m usually a fan of Williams’s stuff.

Also on the mediocre side is Phil Collins’ medley of “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End.” He tears up the drum part, but his vocals are just a bit dull. The guy’s done a few too many songs for Disney to really tear things up.

On the good side is a surprise. Celine Dion turned in a very respectable “Here, There, And Everywhere.” I, like most self-respecting men, dislike her as a rule. To this day, I don’t think I’ve heard more than 15 seconds of her piece from “Titanic.” But she’s done a few songs — usually covers of songs others have done — that I really enjoy. I actually prefer her version of Jim Steinman’s “It’s All Coming Back To Me” over Meat Loaf’s, and she did a better job on “I Drove All Night” than Cyndi Lauper.

Also pretty damned good is Jeff Beck’s “A Day In The Life.” I’ve never been really “into” him, but I respect him — and he does a fantastic job of turning that into a pure instrumental, and his guitar work makes the lyrics utterly irrelevant. If you know the song at all, you “hear” them anyway.

Then there are the tracks where Martin got non-singers to perform. And that is where it really shines.

The album starts off with “Come Together,” and the famous opening of that song begins here a capella — someone is vocalizing the instrumental sounds. Then another voice joins in, a growling, whispery, slightly disturbed yet oddly familiar voice that brings an appropriately manic and offbeat energy to the song. Somehow, Martin got the notion of producing the song as a duet between Bobby McFerrin and Robin Williams — and damn if it doesn’t work.

Then a slow, sultry jazz sound starts up, and a woman starts breathily singing a seductive version of “Hard Day’s Night.” She doesn’t come across as a professional singer, but a gifted amateur, and you go nuts until she gets to the point where she plays with the lyrics a little — she sticks a snore into the middle of “I should be (snort) sleeping like a log” and giggles, and you know that giggle. When she goes into a little-girl voice and says “I feel okey-dokey” at the end, you say to yourself, “good god, that’s Goldie Hawn!”

One of the crazier Beatles songs has to be “I Am The Walrus,” so Martin went looking for one of the craziest-acting people he could find. From the opening it’s clear this guy is no professional singer, but a professional lunatic. A man just as frantic and chaotic and unpredictable as Robin Williams was in his day, with a voice as rubbery as his face and body. It’s clinched when he starts his unmistakable laugh during one of his “I am the egg-man/They are the egg-men” and you wonder if Jim Carrey was bent over in the studio, pretending to sing out of his ass. Then, stick around to the end, when he shouts his accomplishment as the music winds down — it’s classic Carrey.

“Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” is an odd song — there really isn’t any reason for the lyrics to be sung, as they’re basically a transcript of a carnival barker. So Martin said “what the hell” and had them shouted out by someone as a barker, someone with an unusual and distinctive voice and accent to make them work — and he gave that task to Scottish comedian and actor Billy Connolly.

The last track on the album has pretty much melted every woman I’ve played it for. The remarkably tender “In My Life” works great as a song, but when done as a dramatic reading over the melody, it works just as well. Especially when the reading is by Sir Sean Connery.

(For the record: I don’t know if Wizbang has a referral program with Amazon, and I don’t think I invoked it accidentally. I’m only linking to Amazon because they offer samples of the songs, and I’m most familiar with them.)

It’s a fantastic album, and you don’t have to be a Beatles fanatic to appreciate it. I’m certainly not.

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