So you guys are probably wondering why ol‘ potty mouth Mike has started talking like a reject from the ’20s. Shocking as this might sound, I haven’t lost my mind (ya can’t lose something you ain’t got in the first place). I was just getting in character for my review of Twist is the New Twerk, by Scott Bradlee and the Postmodern Jukebox.
Ever wished you could go back? Waaay back. Back to the Roaring ’20s. A time when men were men, and women were . . . oh, um, okay, yeah, the ’20s sucked from the whole “gender equality” point of view. What most of us can agree with, however, is that the music our more sexist ancestors left behind was pretty awesome. What? You say you hate swing? You say you’re a hip-hop guy/girl? Well then, what are you doing reading this? Go and listen to Yeezus (trust me, it’s worth it).
If you’re not a beautiful little fool, and enjoy swing music, flappers, and general, gregariously genial, gaudily grand Gatsbydom, then you’re in for a treat. Covers and re-imaginings of songs are usually the domain of bored and/or very talented YouTubers. Scott Bradlee, however, has taken the whole re-imagining Top 40 tracks thing to a whole new level. He and his Postmodern Jukebox take popular songs like Macklemore’s ‘Thrift Shop’, Lady Gaga’s ‘Just Dance’, and even the Pitbull/Ke$ha collaboration that is ‘Timber’, and give them a retro, 1920s twist. It’s quite a treat to hear lyrics like “Ice on the fringe, it’s so damn frosty, / The people like, “Damn! That’s a cold ass honkey”, pop up on a track that sounds like it was ripped right out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (hypothetical) Spotify playlist. But enough of me ramblin‘ on. Let’s take a look at the record, old sport.
Before we get into the actual review, I’ve gotta give you guys a little heads-up. Unless you’ve been living under a mossy boulder somewhere in Sweden (why Sweden? Why not?), you’re probably familiar with the original version of all, or most of the songs covered in this album. Therefore, I’m going to be talking about the quality and vibe of the covers, instead of reviewing the songs themselves which remain more or less unchanged, in terms of actual songwriting and lyrics.
‘We Can’t Stop’ (Miley Cyrus cover)
If you’re the large party kind of guy or gal (small parties have no privacy, don’t you know, old sport), you’ll be intimately familiar with this song. It’s that raunchy, liberated, I-don-give-a-rat’s-pyjamas-about-what-you-think party anthem that our favourite twerk-happy former Disney gal gave us last year. The first thing you notice on the Postmodern Jukebox’s version is the barbershop quartet-like backing vocals. To be honest, if you’d have told me that I’d be using the words “Miley Cyrus”, and “barbershop quartet” in the same sentence, I’d have advised you to get your head checked. Oddly enough, it works really, really well. The outright raunchiness of the original is traded in for a (paradoxically) more assertive and more self-assured tone. It’s almost as if by taking a calmer approach to the song, the actual message comes through more forcefully than the original. It also helps that the drama (or melodrama) is solidly supported by a solid, blues-ish piano accompaniment, that somehow fits the song better than all the drum machines in the world ever could.
‘Thrift Shop’ (Macklemore cover)
My initial tender curiosity upon discovering this track, quickly evolved into actual love (yep, that’s right, I’m gonna stuff as many Great Gatsby quotes into this review as I can, and y’all can’t do a thing about it). Who’d have thought that ragtime piano would make this song so damn smooth. The whole thrift shop coolness really comes through in this cover (making it so absurdly danceable). Robyn Adele Anderson (on vocals) absolutely nails the ragtime songstress sound, with a vocal smoothness that makes this track so eminently listenable, that I’ve had it on repeat for the past several days.
‘Timber’ (Pitbull/Ke$ha cover)
Who would have thought that ‘Timber’ could be this suave and hip? Certainly not me. The backing trumpet on this track makes for an interesting addition to the song, and keeps the whole track practically flying to its swing. The backup singers also give a nice, barbershop-ish feel to the whole thing (it’s getting to be a kind of theme here), punctuating the track with chorused highlights of “timber” here and there. The track actually lends itself surprisingly well to the ragtime treatment, transitioning gracefully from generic party anthem, to suave dance hall tune.
‘Blurred Lines’ (Robin Thicke/Pharrell Williams cover)
‘Blurred Lines’ sees the Postmodern Jukebox taking a more down south, hoedown approach to the music. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still got ragtime juice in it, except that it’s been spiked with a few ounces of bourbon (and maybe just a hint of Jack’s). Just picture Pharrell Williams with a stetson on his . . . oh, what’s that? We’ve got pics? Awesome.
The whole dance vibe of the original is ratcheted up to eleven, and if you can manage to sit still while listening to this, you might not have a soul (remember to check regularly). Country fiddles, or just plain ol‘ violins, I guess, solidly cement the square dancey-ness of the track. Anderson proves that she’s capable of much more than sultry, ragtime vocals by taking a spectacular down South gal turn on this track, going so far as to do that hoedown-breakdown, swing-your-partner-‘round-and-’round thingy around the one-minute-and-fifty-seconds mark. Now, the only thing missing here is a flannel shirted, Dasy-Duke-shorted Miley, grabbing suggestively at Thicke’s cowboy trousers. Actually, scratch that; there’s enough nightmare fuel in the world as is.
‘Gentleman’ (PSY cover)
Whoa, okay, alright, waitaminit. What the hell is going here? Did these guys actually take on PSY! PSY!? Yep, boys and girls, you read that right. Going all out Korean on all yo’ asses, the Postmodern Jukebox give their patented retrofication treatment to PSY’s official followup to Gagging . . . Gaga . . . Gogo . . . umm . . . you know, that song of his that had everybody riding invisible, spastic horses a while back (‘Gangnam Style’). Ragtime galore, and you get the feeling that the U.S. Army troops stationed in Korea during the ’40s, might have had a blast dancing to this track (check your history books for more details . . . or, ya know, Wikipedia). Lines like “Gonna make you sweat / Gonna make you wet” take on an almost dignified allure in this cover, despite their profoundly disturbing connotations. It might take two to make an accident, but it takes bunches of trumpets, ragtime piano, and an impressively accurate bit of Korean from the lead songstress, to make this track almost dignified . . . almost.
‘Get Lucky’ (Daft Punk/Pharrell Williams cover)
The Jukebox do a one-eighty turn in terms of style on this track. Gone is the ragtimey sound, replaced with a waltzy, operatic take on 2013’s most popular and ubiquitous track. I really can’t say a lot about this track. It’s one of those things that you really have to hear for yourself (and I’m not just saying that because I’m too lazy to write the review . . .). Around the two-minute-and-forty-second mark, the gentle, lilting waltz gets a shot of testosterone, adding in a driving drum beat, supplemented by swinging violins in the background (or are those fiddles?). It’s a real transformation from the original, and it’s actually very refreshing to see this song faring so well, so far from its electro roots. Anderson is joined on this track by the vintage, Irish tenor. The duo perform extremely well together on this track, and the quasi-operatic feel of the vocals is quite a revelation upon first listen.
I still haven’t been able to determine the tenor’s name on this track; if any of you feel like setting me straight, post it in the comments section.
‘Come and Get It’ (Selena Gomez cover)
The muted trumpet present throughout the whole track whisks us straight to noir streets, sultry jazz singers, and calls to mind a whole slew of Raymond Chandler books. I’m actually shocked by how well this song has transitioned into noir jazz. The lyrics, the melody, the everything. It all practically screams hardboiled. Anderson’s vocals on this track actually remind me a little of Dutch pop/jazz singer Caro Emerald. Same sassy, cool, assured poise; same general musical tone. One measure piano and trumpet, one measure The Big Sleep, and one measure cold cigarette smoke and broken promises that keep you wandering the hard streets and alleys deep into the night, accompanied by the whys, and the what ifs, and the should-have-hads. Suffice it to say, if you put this track on, be prepared to start gazing moodily into the middle distance, while nursing a fifth of scotch. If you’ve ever felt a haunting loneliness (and felt it in others, too), this track is for you.
‘Wake Me Up’ (AVICII cover)
Now this is an interesting surprise. Three tracks away from the end of the album, we’re treated to a mariachi version of AVICII’s ‘Wake Me Up’ (courtesy of the Mariachi Fiesta del Norte). Sung in perfect Spanish, and with a New Mexico vibe that has me flashing back to Breaking Bad’s ‘Mariachi Heisenberg Song’, for some strange reason. The original’s light, airy and hopeful tone is maintained, and actually enhanced by Fiesta del Norte’s upbeat tone. This is truly one of the most unexpected surprises on this album (yeah, yeah, I know that all surprises are unexpected. Sheesh, pedantic much?).
For what this record strives to be, it is near-flawless. Add to that the fact that most people hadn’t even considered a retro version of these tracks before Scott Bradlee came around, and you’ve got yourself a very solid album. I do have some little points to complain about, though.
While ragtime can only sound like . . . well . . . ragtime, and nothing else, I would have enjoyed a little more variation, sound-wise on this album. Most of the jazzy, ragtime tracks sound pretty similar, and seem to coast along on the impetus and popularity of the original. I know you can’t really turn jazz into something it’s not, but a little variation would have spiced things up a little. If only they’d just kept going along the lines of ‘Timber’ as a square-dance-ish dance number, and ‘Wake Me Up’ as a mariachi tune (but maybe then they wouldn’t have been all that retro after all, and that would have defeated the purpose of the album, and turned it back into a compilation of re-twerked modern tunes . . .).
‘Just Dance’ is the closest that the Postmodern Jukebox get to a big band number (and sadly, it’s pared back quite a bit). I absolutely love this track, for all that it could have been. I know that the Jukebox guys and gals probably don’t have a lot of dough to throw around, but it would have been absolutely amazing to have heard this track take a more Benny Goodman, ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’, big band route. Just imagine a whole jazz band behind this song while you listen to it. Don’t get me wrong, this track is amazing. The only reason why it ended up on the “complaints” section of this review, is because I (very selfishly) would have really, really liked to see it on a grander scale. Most Lady Gaga songs are on a pretty grand scale to begin with, and it’s a pity that this cover couldn’t quite reach that. Of course, it works immensely well for what it is.
The Verdict – 8.9 (Amazing)
– Basically a great, retro reworking of the most famous tracks of last year.
– Robyn Adele Anderson absolutely nails the sultry jazz singer tone (as do the backing artists).
– Arrangements are very tasteful, and never go overboard.
– Songs lose nothing of what made the original so popular, in the retro conversion process.
– Perfect ’20s sound and ethos.
– Some of the tracks sound a wee bit repetitive, at least in terms of the ragtime genre tone.
– ‘Just Dance’ really deserved a big band rendition.