String-cheese incidents: Four of the dozens and dozens of tributes in the CMH stable
String-cheese incidents: Four of the dozens and dozens of tributes in the CMH stable

Strung Up

Here is something I bet you did not know, because I did not know it until a month ago, and people who should have known long before me didn't even know until I told them. There is a record label in Los Angeles called CMH that, through a subsidiary called Vitamin, releases CDs featuring one or more string quartets paying tribute to rock-and-roll acts. Now, this I knew about, because since 1999 a few of these collections have shown up in the mailbox--a string-quartet homage to Led Zeppelin here, one to Madonna, another to Bob Dylan or the Who or some other classic-rock fogey. I have always tossed them into the novelty dustbin, never cracking the plastic wrapping to hear the atrocity within. "Black Dog" on viola? Dear God, no thanks.

These discs now fill entire racks at your local music megastore--string-quartet tributes far as the eye can see and ear can stand. They've become a cottage, or cottage-cheese, industry for CMH, which cranks out dozens of these discs each year to the obvious (James Taylor, Norah Jones, Coldplay, Radiohead, R.E.M.), the unlikely (Mudvayne, Tool, Nine Inch Nails, Linkin Park), the undeserving (Evanescence, 311, Dashboard Confessional), the inexplicable (White Stripes, the Smiths, Joy Division, Depeche Mode) and damned near anyone else who's ever released an album that sold more than 100,000 copies in the past three decades.

What I did not know, and what you will not believe, is that some of them sell quite well: According to the label, Third Eye Open, an homage to moody metal band Tool, has sold some 62,631 copies since its release in 2001. In music-industry terms, that is one shitload of CDs, especially for a tiny indie peddling classically gassed versions of hard-rock hits. Most sell around 3,000 copies; then, most aren't that good. But another thing I did not know, and what you will not want to hear, is that some of these CDs aren't bad at all. In fact, the Radiohead tributes, of which there are two, are pretty good; so, too, are the Nine Inch Nails and Led Zeppelin discs. Even better is the version of "Bizarre Love Triangle" on the New Order-Joy Division homage. I know. Go figure.

"It's a cool idea, and one of the things I dig about it is it's not a heavy-metal band doing a heavy-metal band's music," says Mudvayne drummer Matt McDonough, whose band was the subject of a string-quartet tribute, titled In the Chamber With Mudvayne, last year. McDonough was at first reluctant to talk about the disc, fearing his endorsing the disc might encourage fans to go out and buy it, even though the band had nothing to do with it and didn't even know about it till it was in stores. The bands so honored have no say in these tributes, and if they want a copy of their own discs, they'll probably have to go buy them--as McDonough did. He decided to talk after coming to the conclusion that, dang it, the record is kinda awesome.

"It's removed from the genre and its own take, which is worthy," he says. "Even if you don't dig it, it's worth checking out to see what kind of spin these classical musicians can put on a metal band. What I am talking about is context. It's the context of the delivery and the way in which the fans are exposed to it. It is a little scary and weird and alienating for something to be out there that can be directly attributed to me as an artist I had nothing to do with. I am glad it was done well and tastefully."

CMH has been around since the '70s as a bluegrass label, and in the mid-'90s got into the tribute biz with its Pickin' On series of albums--as in Pickin' on the Grateful Dead, Pickin' on the Who and on and pickin' on. CMH then started doing some lounge-style tributes and figured to try the string-quartet route--"just something unique and eclectic," says co-owner David Haerle. Led Zeppelin became the label's guinea pig, and the label put out the call for an arranger and violinist to put together what eventually became The String Quartet Tribute to Led Zeppelin. Violinist Eric Gorfain, who had performed with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page during their Unledded tour of Japan in '96, saw the notice on a Zeppelin fan Web site and was hired to work on several tracks. Gorfain has since become one of CMH's key arrangers, producers and players.

Gorfain, like most of the players and producers in the CMH stable, is not some hack-for-hire cranking out these tribs in a Burbank sweatshop with underage violin students working for pennies on the dollar--though, given the quantity and quality put out by the label, it certainly may appear that way. (You haven't lived, and died, till you've heard Foo Fighters and No Doubt and 311 performed on strings.) Gorfain has credentials and credibility, having performed and recorded with the likes of Maria McKee, Dwight Yoakam, Rod Stewart and Sinead O'Connor. And with his own ensemble, simply titled The Section, Gorfain plays around Los Angeles' most reputable live-music venues, among them the Knitting Factory and Largo, the latter a sort of hipster petri dish where the likes of Aimee Mann, Jon Brian and Rhett Miller try out new material.

Not that any of that garners for Gorfain even a tiny bit of respect. He knows these discs are going to be treated like novelties at best, exploitations at worst. All he can do is treat them as seriously as possible and prove to the few thou who might buy them that his intentions are sincere. At least he has one fan: Tool's Maynard James Keenan liked The Section's work on Third Eye Open so much he hired the ensemble to record with his side project A Perfect Circle. So, uh, there.

"We are straddling a line, and it's not easy to do," Gorfain says. "I am not going to claim I am a genius, but when I am writing these I try to pick the songs from the artists I like, that I think are substantial enough to warrant removing the drums and lyrics but can still stand on their own musically. After that it's a matter of finding the right way to approach and arrange it by changing the vibe, by slowing it down. I did The Cure's 'Just Like Heaven' and turned it into a 6/8 waltz, so now it sounds like Pachelbel's Canon, which works. Whether you think it's cheesy or not is for the listener to decide. We don't take ourselves seriously, but we take the work seriously. We don't want to be cheesy."

God knows there's a long and sordid history of rock music getting strung up by musicians and producers suffering a bad case of classical gas. Chief among the longtime offenders is the London Symphony Orchestra, which has been forcing bow ties on the blue-jean boys ever since the 1960s and continues to peddle bombastic tribs to the likes of Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and the Stones. In the '60s, Capitol Records employed an in-house band called the Hollyridge Strings, whose four Beatles Songbook collections sanitized John, Paul, George and Ringo for your protection.

Critics and audiences--and artists, perhaps most of all--took the rock-to-classical bit most seriously when Kronos Quartet included Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" at the end of its 1986 self-titled album alongside pieces from modern classical composers. What seemed a tossed-off novelty garnered for Kronos the sort of attention classical ensembles rarely get in the mainstream press. Of "Purple Haze," Allen Kozinn wrote in The New York Times in December '86 that the arrangement "actually captures much of the note-bending swing and even some of the raw power of the guitarist-singer's own recording." All the CMH folks interviewed for this story, including arranger Tom Tally, cited Kronos' "Purple Haze" as their chief inspiration, which absolutely floors the ensemble's David Harrington.

"Is that right?" the violinist says, sounding more flattered than actually frightened. "That's great. You never know who's gonna hear a piece of music and hear something you do and run with it in their direction. That's one of the things I love about being a musician: You just never know what piece might touch a chord for people. I mean, the reason we did 'Purple Haze' in the first place was we did a concert that included a new version of Stravinsky's The Rites of Spring, and I got to thinking, 'What if we need an encore, and how in the world do you follow Stravinsky?' The only thing that came to my mind was Hendrix."

Harrington said immediately after this interview he was going to call CMH and ask for their entire catalog. He's heard a few but had no idea there were dozens and dozens of them. He looked especially forward to the Radiohead discs, but hoped they didn't sound too much like Shostakovich, which would have been just too obvious.

After Kronos, the novelty had become the relative norm: The Hampton String Quartet, signed to staid classical stable RCA Victor, began releasing its What if Mozart Wrote... albums, on which it performed everything from "White Rabbit" to "Sunshine of Your Love," and its 1993 Sympathy for the Devil collection, with more Stones, Beatles and Zeppelin covers. In '93, Elvis Costello recorded an EP with the Brodsky Quartet at New York's Town Hall, on which they covered Tom Waits and the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." Three years after that, Split Enz's Eddie Raymer convinced the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra to redo his old band's back catalog for two volumes of symphonic new-wave featuring, among others, Neil and Tim Finn.

In '96, as well, four Finnish classical-music students transcribed Metallica's songs, among them "Enter Sandman" and "Creeping Death," for cellos; the result was the oddly compelling Apocalyptica Plays Metallica by Four Cellos, songs from which would later appear in Neil LaBute's film Your Friends & Neighbors. Funny thing is, all these tribute albums sound like soundtracks to indie films--which is why CMH is trying to sell its music to the movies at this very moment. The label has also hired an outside publicist to push offerings that might get reviewed without the sneers or jeers of rock critics who think these albums automatic crap.

"We do miss the mark on occasion," CMH's Haerle readily admits. "We've had pairings we wished would have worked out better musically or thought would work out well and underwhelmed us. But some things just click. With Tool, to be honest, there's an unknown element I don't think I can quantify. And, yeah, they're dismissed by a lot of people for any number of reasons as novelties, and we accept that. I would love for some of the things we do to get better coverage. We've put the word out; we do what we do. But it's not much of an expectation."


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