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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky