Sting and swing: Thanks to CMH Records, they do more than just rhyme.
Sting and swing: Thanks to CMH Records, they do more than just rhyme.
William Claxton

Pickin' a winner

Half of my enjoyment of music stems from listening without knowing whether or not I'm going to hate something, while many people are like radio programmers who just want the hits and rarely stray from a 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 One? Or The Beatles Songbook as performed by the Hollyridge Strings -- an album that Capitol Records had the effrontery to flog on the rear sleeves 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 following Lennon's "bigger than Jesus" remark, and you'll see a copy or two of The Beatles Songbook catching fire. In that defining Beatle-hating moment, even those teenage Jesuits, who probably thought The Beatles Songbook was a greatest-hits LP, could find no room in their hearts for the Hollyridge Strings. Or, for that matter, the tasteless way in which a Stradivarius can be strong-armed into plucking out the melody of "And I Love Her.")

These days, with Snoop dogging the oldies and the continuing perpetration of such rock-on-rock crimes as tribute albums, there isn't much clamor for similarly curious instrumental interpretations of, say, '80s favorites. In light of this, I was resigned to simply playing the Boston Pops' Saturday Night Fiedler a hundred more times when Mr. Postman delivered three strange but thoroughly enjoyable new CDs from CMH Records. Like a panacea for my weird instrumental mindjam, I've now got big-band instrumental interpretations of Sting and the Police, bluegrass renderings of Bruce Springsteen, and string quartets attacking R.E.M.

Lest this seem like a joke, I present Pickin' on Springsteen, subtitled "A Bluegrass & Country Instrumental Tribute" that is "guaranteed to keep you 'Dancin' in the Dark' all night long!" Since 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 a 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.

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' dependence 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 fight in Vietnam, Charlie's outta there! This hoedown version of "Born in the USA" is about as far from Southeast Asia as Hazzard County!

My fave supreme, though, has got to be "Born to Run," which ditches 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. Okay, well, maybe not Nebraska -- which the cover art of Pickin' mimics but the song selection ignores.

Good thing too, since 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!

CMH is to be commended for filling this unforeseen cultural void. When I rang up their office to do just that, the company's media coordinator seemed a tad surprised that anyone could be this interested in CDs that are intended as novelty gifts or (God willing) kick-ass in-store background music. Yet thirty minutes later I was 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 was thrilled as pie to be talking to the creator of Pickin' on Springsteen, and I'm sure 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 market 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. Who'd have figured that Haerle would not only define a niche market for instrumental music, but would also actually find a way to improve on the originals?

Really -- I'm forever cured of wanting to hear Bruce any other way! And color me tickled pink, because there are already a half-dozen titles available in CMH's Pickin' On series. Haerle rattled them off for me: 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 told Haerle I had to have this sent immediately.

A day later, Pickin' on Hendrix arrives with its flaming-banjo art and "File This Release in the Jimi Hendrix Bin" sticker carefully affixed. I'm kind of disappointed that there's no banjo feedback a la the Monks here, and "The Star-Spangled Banner" is pretty much just your standard bluegrass national anthem that could have squatted comfortably on a Homer and Jethro record. But that's jes' nitpickin', since "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" sounds like it's time to start the Family Fe-uuud. Biggest bit of fun was 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!

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, as this is 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 hep cat 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 says. "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, and 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"), while "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 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 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 stalking Oscar Madison with a Dustbuster.

A Swingin' 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 the world will 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!" Which brings us to the third and equally fine installment -- The String Quartet Tribute to R.E.M., a 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 Herrmann's score for Vertigo or 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.

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 counter-melody track or airport arrival announcement buried way down low in the mix. These cat-gut scrapers get that same psycho-acoustics 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. The members of R.E.M. are just a bunch of randomizers who grow lazier with each outing. How can they sleep at night, knowing a generic string quartet from British Columbia is besting their finest work songs? T.S.Q. is also 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, we can continue to listen to background music until what passes for foreground music nowadays improves. And should I find myself shmendraked 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. 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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