Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Frank Sinatra Lives -- and he Smells Like Teen Spirit

I begin with a word to the wise. If you want to build up your music collection on your computer and don't feel like earning the pricey wrath of the RIAA, there is a simple solution: your public library. Nearly every public library has a CD collection. Go there, check out what they have and try some different things out. It is a no-risk way to explore music. While you probably won't find new releases, it is a great way to find things you never knew existed.

Had it not been for the Monroe County Public Library, this blog post would not exist.

At first glance, the CD seemed utterly ridiculous. Insane. A practical joke. Paul Anka would take some 80s hits, set them to swing music and belt them out. He called it Rock Swings -- ugh. Hasn't Canada inflicted enough pain on us already? Smells Like Teen Spirit sung by a Frank Sinatra-wannabe. Good Lord.

If you know me, you know what happened next. I checked it out. I figured that it would be laughably, demonstrably, memorably awful and I could torture my friends by having my laptop blare the swing version of "Eye of the Tiger." Yes, I am a horrible person.

In spite of itself, it works. I can't fully explain it. Anka has an infectious style, very Sinatra-like. He knows how crazy this album is and is enjoying himself. You will play it and crank up the volume. A campy style works when the performer knows it is campy and rolls with it and has fun.

TANGENT ALERT: The A-Team was pure 1980s camp, but because it was done with a wink-and-a-nod and knew exactly what it was, so it was enjoyable. It didn't take long to get the timing of the show. The first two segments set up the problem faced by the helpless victims and the A-Team's role. We quickly saw the A-Team get into trouble and the bad guys (whether it was the crooked businessman who the A-Team was after or the U.S. Army that was chasing them) would pull the same mistake as most Bond villains and either admit their evil to the A-Team or not actually kill the A-Team, deciding to lock them up and take care of them later -- in both cases, because they thought they had the A-Team pinned. The A-Team would regroup and, in a wonderful three minute-montage, would knock everyone out and deliver the bad guys into the long arms of the law before evading those same arms. When Hannibal quipped, "I love it when a plan comes together," it was a wink-and-nod at the audience, because a plan always came together. The show wasn't enjoyable because of the plots -- we always knew that the A-Team would be victorious, come back in one piece and avoid the hapless Army pursuer (Col. Decker was always my favorite). We didn't watch for what happened, but for how it was pulled off and for the joy/familiarity of the characters -- they have a charm that makes them irresistible (they would have loved this video). Compare this kind of camp to Walker, Texas Ranger. They share the same general outline (first two segments set up the problem, third one sees heroes get into deep water, fourth segment sees heroes beat bad guys, fifth segment is the aftermath), but Walker treats the plot as paramount rather than the deus ex machina for seeing our heroes in action. Walker actually expects the audience to be in suspense about whether Walker and Trivette will live to see another day. The distinction between the two explains why the A-Team's intentional campiness is enjoyable, while the laughs that come from Walker are purely unintentional. This album is definitely more A-Team than Walker. END TANGENT.

The songs were very well selected -- they really do work in this setting. I was listening on my iPod on the way home from work and put It's My Life by Bon Jovi and then It's My Life by Paul Anka on back to back and was struck at how both work when you imagine different situations. The angry defiance of the Bon Jovi version that made it an anthem for every rebellious 80s teenager is turned into a Rat Pack style bravado. It has the same underlying "you don't control me" vibe, but the delivery makes all the difference. Imagine a teenager yelling at his parents from the top of the stairs versus Frank Sinatra telling off a broad. I keep coming back to Sinatra, but there really isn't any other comparison. The album is so filled with his cool braggadocio that if Old Blue Eyes wasn't dead, I'd suspect him of singing it and using Paul Anka as a pseudonym.

The best song on the album is his cover of Tears in Heaven. Most covers of the Clapton classic go with a spare acoustic instrumental sound. Anka keeps the swing music, but the sound works. Not all swing/jazz/big band is Dean Martin singing Ain't That a Kick in the Head. It is quite capable of slow, sad songs and this one The "time can bring you down" opening lines were done masterfully and the music evoked the right mixture of melancholy. If even if you never heard any of the lyrics, it would have aroused the proper emotions. You could take away the lyrics and it would work as a movie soundtrack for that sorrowful moment in the plot. Anka kept the right tone, of a mourning father who lost his son, even as his version has an obviously different sound. Had Anka not struck the perfect chord, this could have turned macabre in a hurry.

The same could be said for the entire album.

P.S. Yes, I know that I am two years behind the times on this one. That's what happens when you use the public library to build your collection. The reviews on this one were pretty mixed. You have the love it group and the hate it group. I think this one gets it pretty much right.

It's My Life -- Paul Anka

It's My Life -- Bon Jovi

Tears in Heaven -- Paul Anka

Tears in Heaven -- Eric Clapton