She Blinded Me with Stray Cats

July 21st, 2005  |  Published in old and busted  |  1 Comment

When I was about seven, there was a “creature feature” show on Saturday afternoons out of Pittsburgh I tuned in to. The movies were standard cheap horror stuff, but the hosts scared the hell out of me: A long-haired woman in a loose, flowing 70s outfit, and a little person with a goatee and big hair in jacket, slacks and wide collars. They acted sort of intense between commercials, and they defined sinister in my little world.

I get the same feeling listening to Bruce Lash’s lounge reimagining of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” on “Prozak for Lovers“, which is one of three albums I’ve bought in the last week as part of a midget trend: lounge and swing covers of pop standards.

I was a high school jazz band nerd, and sort of a purist about it, to the extent I was definitely not down with any of the swing stuff Mr. Plank seemed so fond of. And because I was a sneery teenager, I had a court order to sneer extra hard when Mr. Plank said things like “You kids have some tasty licks fryin’ up in that pan.”

So when Mr. Plank (we all just called him “Dave”) decided to get a Korg keyboard, I was apoplectic over the electronic noisemaker he loved so much. My form of teenage rebellion, in retrospect, seemed to involve acting like a 69-year-old Korean war vet.

Naturally, now that I’ve gotten older and calmer, I give Dave a lot more slack. But when he made us play “Stray Cat Strut” and introduced a bleeplty-boop synthesizer solo, it was upsetting to then turn around and do “She Blinded Me With Science” with the Korg set to sound like a plain old piano. I didn’t see any of that as particularly visionary. It just offended the grumpy old man I’d become in the name of jazz, who thought playing top 40 songs was wrong to begin with but definitely thought that anything we did by Thomas Dolby should go “bleep” and that anything we did by the Stray Cats should go “wah.”

Years went by. My generation reengineered the sneer. Utne Reader put a pixilated Mona Lisa on the cover and wondered if it was “time to get back to the good, the true and the beautiful” instead of wallowing in “post-modern” insincerity and sarcasm. Utne Reader’s 20-something alternativeness, I suppose, involved acting like a 69-year-old Korean war vet who happened to be a community college art instructor.

All the same, when Pat Boone rolled out “In a Metal Mood,” I was pleased with the idea in a sort of 20-something “now Pat Boone is ugly, too” way, but when a community record station played a whole side of the thing in one shot, I was done with it without even fretting over it in the record store aisle. Then, of course, the whole swing thing overtook us and it became perfectly cool (alternately in that inflected, ironic, sarcastic way or in a sort of “now that I’m a mature 27-year-old, I can acknowledge the wisdom of my elders” sincere way) to worship at the altar of Lounge Nation.

Because my take on 37 involves acting like a 69-year-old Korean war vet who smoked pot with his son-in-law once, I got real sick of the whole “torch singer/lounge dude” thing pretty quickly. Didn’t mind its more sincere and slavish revival expressions, but I’m kind of not cool with the whole “let’s jazz this old, uh, jazz up with some GUITAR!” mostly because it generally seems more like defacement than anything.

On the other hand, I was willing to buy into the idea that the tracks on Lash’s “Prozak for Lovers” (volumes one & two), in the words of a fan, “actually illuminate their inherent worthiness.”

Like I noted at the top: I get more of a frisson from the “Don’t Fear the Reaper” cover than Blue Oyster Cult ever managed. “Heart of Glass” works in that context. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is good stuff. “Alabama Song” is also not so bad. “Aqualung” is purely fueled by absurdity.

The common denominator in all those (“Aqualung” excepted) is the sincerity of the source material. The whole thing falls apart with “Psycho Killer,” and it staggers under the uprooting songs like “Proud Mary” and “Folsom Prison Blues” endure, snatched from their native, blue collar roots and transplanted to Planet Swank.

Still and all: Mellow and pleasant. The whole collection would have been aided by more of a sense of mission. It teeters between the deadpan of Combustible Edison and the shambling mockery of Marty Culp. Mark it down as a semi-reverential incursion into lounge territory.

As I drove the car to the dealership for repairs this morning, NPR clued me to the opposite side of the coin from Paul Anka, with “Rock Swings“, a collection of pop covers reengineered as swing tunes.

Some of the collection is as absurd as “Prozak for Lovers.” I don’t know if “Smells Like Teen Spirit” really belongs, no matter how straight Anka says he’s playing it, and his interview on NPR implied that that particular track was more of a provocation than a tribute.

But the rest of the collection makes a lot more sense: Spandau Ballet’s “True” is a bit of schooling 25 years overdue. “Everybody Hurts” suffers only because it’s hard to imagine the sock garter generation admitting to that sort of weakness. “Jump” is such a natural it’s hard to believe David Lee Roth didn’t find it in his grandfather’s attic. And the stuff that pads the collection out … the fish out of water that aren’t so out of water … like “Tears in Heaven” and “Hello” are rendered with lush orchestrals and sincerity.

If I had to score this matchup, I’d give it to Anka. He tried to recraft his source material to make it fit in his idiom. Bruce Lash did an admirable job lounging his material up, but it doesn’t feel like his native language, and his crafstmanship is limited.

Update: From me you get subjective, from Phil you get erudite.

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