Muppets: The Green Album
McKim (August 23, 2011) - Cover versions are
very tricky things. In order to do an effective cover, a band must uphold
the spirit of the original song and retain the elements that made it great
enough to warrant an honor yet at the same time add their own unique stamp
to justify a new recording of the song rather than just letting the original
stand on its own. When one then multiplies that by a dozen, cover albums
can be even harder to pull off. Sometimes they come across as pure tributes
featuring eclectic mixes of worthy re-imaginings and other times they
just leave the listener thankful they can go back and listen to the original
The album opens with OK Go's version of "The Muppet Show Theme", which is also the album's debut single. This will probably be the most controversial track since it's not an interpretation that will be for everyone, but I at least love it. OK Go is a great match for the Muppets and they're one of the few modern musicians deserving of the honor of tackling the theme. They include all the verses from the various seasons which brings me to one of my few nitpicks of the song.
The Statler and Waldorf verse is sang
pretty straight in the same manner all the other verses are and to a listener
previously unfamiliar with "The Muppet Show Theme", it sounds
kind of odd to have a shift from verses declaring an exciting Muppetational
theatrical experience to one wondering "why are we here?" My
other minor quibble is that the recording's just a bit bass heavy and
may overwhelm some speakers. It's a fun way to start the album but in
the end, OK Go's cover is apt to be more memorable for
the video than the musical interpretation itself.
Continuing the trend of recording artists who've done music videos with
the Muppets, Weezer's duet with Hayley Williams of "Rainbow Connection"
is a wonderfully wistful fusion of both familiar and new. The song feels
very much in the spirit of the original but is enhanced with harp in place
of banjo and nature sounds providing atmosphere luring the listener into
the outdoor setting where Kermit ponders his very complex ruminations
on life. People may be surprised at hearing Weezer doing something a bit
more subdued and lovely but this doesn't veer into muzak territory; like
Muppet music at its best, it's sweet but not saccharine. Interesting trivia:
Weezer's self-titled 2001 album just also happens to be referred to by
its fans as "The Green Album".
The really cool thing about Alkaline Trio's version of "Movin' Right Along" is that they totally capture the spirit of the song - in The Muppet Movie, Kermit and Fozzie sing it driving in their car and this is a recording that completely sounds like the kind of song one would turn on full blast and sing along with on a nice sunny day drive. The essence of fun is all over the track especially in the recreation of Kermit and Fozzie's spoken dialogue. Having said that, I can't help but be a little disappointed with the vocals.
all Paul Williams' songs in The Muppet Movie, "Movin' Right Along"
is very much a singer's song - it's deceptively complex rife with accidentals
and tempo shifts on phrases. There's a couple places where Alkaline Trio
pick up on this but largely, the musical phrasing is sanitized - representing
the generic vocal lines a casual listener only thinks they would go when
in reality they typically veer off into a more complex place. I personally
would have loved to hear more talented singers take this on who could
better honor the vocal subtleties of the original track, but I realize
that since my own background is as a trained vocalist that this is a purely
personal bias. Unfortunately, because The Green Album has such a large
amount of selections from The Muppet Movie, this will become a problem
with several of these tracks. However, because "Movin' Right Along"
is by its nature a "sing along with the car radio" song which
Alkaline Trio fully exploits, I can give them a pass for oversimplifying
the music structure.
When it comes
to the original Muppet performances of the songs, "Night Life"
has always been one I found disappointing. While the instrumental performance
is classic Electric Mayhem, I always thought that vocally, Dr. Teeth was
essentially burping his way through the song. Therefore Brandon Saller
had the easiest task improving on the original at least in terms of the
singing - the challenge inherent in doing this song is allowing the backing
music to shine the same way the Muppet version does. The track starts
strong with the familiar guitar riff introducing the track with some outstanding
guitar and drum work throughout. But somewhere halfway through the song,
it tends to lose its way. I like how it ends with improvised laughter
from the band mates the same way the Mayhem would tend to do, but since
they went that direction at the end, it may have worked well if the drum
solo in the middle also contained some Animalesque grunts and howls from
the drummer. The song also tends to lose a lot without any brass in the
challenge in doing a cover of a song like "Bein' Green" is that
it's so frequently covered to the point of being horribly overdone. When
an artist tackles the task of doing such a song, they're pitting their
version against all the other ones that have been recorded through the
decades so one has to really create something outstanding in order to
hold its own. Andrew Bird succeeds in crafting one of the album's stronger
tracks and provides a well above average interpretation with whistling,
violins, and a loose jazzy freeform style. It's very clear he understands
and appreciates the song's musical and artistic themes which he fully
exploits. But while Bird proves his right to stand among the myriad of
recordings of this song, I don't think he quite reaches the top tier of
the very best though his ability to at least come close to for example
Ray Charles' versions is certainly closer than The Fray's take on "Mahna
Mahna" to that of Cake's. Even though he picked a song that's perhaps
too - ahem - evergreen for its own good, the recording is nonetheless
very well done and I especially adore the tremolo on the end recalling
the Muppet Show version. I should also mention that the song grows on
me and I appreciate it more each listen.
But what I can fault is the song's placement right after the very similar in style "Bein' Green" which weakens the song's impact (realizing of course that this is something Nathanson wouldn't have had control over). When the song's unfortunate placement combined with being the second version of a Muppet Movie song that didn't retain some of the better parts of their respective vocal melody lines and techniques. It gets a bit lost within this grouping where it might have shined more as an individual recording. If there's a follow-up to The Green Album and Muppet fans get treated to another round of Muppet song tributes, I'm really hoping that they can bring aboard someone who can sing "Never Before, Never Again" with the full reverence for the wonderful opportunities Williams created for those blessed with the chance to sing it and really provide that something powerful that didn't quite end up happening on this album.
But there still remains one final track - again from The Muppet Movie: Rachael Yamagata's "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday". Wow. Not only does she totally pick up on the beauty of the writing of the vocal phrases, but she simply explodes this song into a stunningly beautiful, dynamically diverse, artistically sensational arrangement and performance. The instrumental climaxes into a different than expected direction which works in the song's favor and then changes again when the vocals come back in. There's so much wonderful things happening here with the song alternately lifting and challenging the listener that someone with the passionate soul of an artist like The Great Gonzo would be totally appreciative of what Yamagata's done with the song. It's a true stunner and a wonderful close to the album allowing it a sense of a grand finale as opposed to a subdued downer yearning for closure that other artists could have easily done if they had been interpreting the same song.
The Green Album has both hits and misses as one would naturally expect, but overall the collection is a worthy one which justifies its existence if not always reaching its true potential with the strongest tracks making up for the flaws in the weaker entries. I'm hopeful that a "volume two" or sequel will follow since there can never be enough Muppet music or fans willing to pay tribute to their vast catalog of songs that explore the human spirit (through non-human entities). If the promos for the upcoming film promise "Muppet domination", a collection like The Green Album's a great way to make such a thing happen.
You can listen to the music of "Muppets: The Green Album" on Muppet Central Radio.