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Muppets: The Green Album

"Muppets: The Green Album" is available on CD and digital download.

DW 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 songs.

After much anticipation, the Muppets' tribute album "The Green Album" is finally unveiled to the public and while it's doubtful most of its listeners will be 100% pleased with each track, the overall collection is a winner - celebrating some of the Muppets' best musical moments and introducing new fans to the world of Muppet music.

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".

One would think that the high point of any Muppet album would be "Mahna Mahna". Yet oddly enough, The Fray's version somehow misses the mark. It seems like they try too hard at a song that's all about spontaneity. Musically, it sounds like one of the myriad videos on YouTube where some kids goof around dressed up as Mahna Mahna and the Snowths and attempt to recreate the song and does little to rise above this quality. Not to say it's a bad version and certainly if it gets radio or club airplay, it's bound to bring many smiles to people's faces but it simply doesn't live up to its potential and given that Cake had previously recorded such a brilliant cover years earlier, it really pales in comparison.

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.

This is an example of the art inside the case of "Muppets: The Green Album". When the CD is played in a computer, fans can access an enhanced content website with computer wallpaper, trailers for the upcoming Muppet movie and links to the Muppets and Walt Disney Records on Facebook.

Like practically 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.

By contrast, "Our World" was the song most likely to be a letdown due to the fact that the original was sung by vocal powerhouses Jerry Nelson and Marilyn Sokol (and I'm as huge a Sokol fan as one gets) and the fact that the song itself is an oddity on this album given that it's not technically from a Classic Muppet production nor ever made the crossover to one (like for example "When the River Meets the Sea"). Yet My Morning Jacket serves up a musically complex, artistically triumphant slice of musical bliss. This is the perfect example of what makes a successful cover - the ability to retain everything about the original song that made it special while simultaneously placing it in a new context and further pushing the boundaries of its themes. This is the song I would be most likely to buy and listen to frequently even if it wasn't a Muppet cover. My Morning Jacket presents a layered aural treasure which completely honors both the internal musical themes of the song itself and the external themes of the song's message. In short, they fully demonstrate an appreciation of the complexity of Paul Williams's Muppet songs that most of the other musicians doing Williams songs don't fully grasp and in the process create the album's standout track! This isn't the first or even the second time My Morning Jacket has attempted to do a Muppet related project and I'm glad they were able to finally achieve success. Hopefully now that Disney has incorporated a piece of Emmet Otter into a Classic Muppet project, they can return the favor and finally allow an uncut froggy framed release of the special to hit video shelves!

"Our World" is immediately followed by another stand-out track: "Halfway Down the Stairs" by Amy Lee. Part of the fun of a tribute album is seeing which artists pick which songs (and likewise which songs end up performed by which artists). Lee and "Halfway" are such a brilliant match that fit together as comfortably as Kermit fits on Henson's hand. I can think of few people I'd deem worthy of tackling Robin's innocent wistfulness and not only does Lee not disappoint, she brings so much more to her interpretation than one would expect creating another musically complex and artistically satisfying sensation. The double helping of "Our World" and "Halfway Down the Stairs" totally justifies purchase of this album despite its weaker moments.

One third of the album's songs were previously in existence before the Muppets performed them and of those entries, "Mr. Bassman" is perhaps the song most likely to be recognized outside of its Muppet interpretation. Performing a song for a Muppet cover album which itself was a cover when the Muppets themselves sang it presents a special challenge since the result will both be compared with the truly original version and its Muppet counterpart. So in taking on Bassman, Sondre Leche stumbles upon a decent solution; emphasize the "Muppety" nature of the song. Leche's rendition may not cause the listener to automatically think of Floyd and Scooter, but it does sound like something that should be within the Muppets' repertoire thus creating a worthy cover of the original song which at the same time sounds completely like it belongs on a Muppet collection.

"The Wishing Song" is another piece that predates the Muppets usage but while Airborne Toxic Event doesn't pull off the same success Leche does in making it seem like a specific cover of the Muppet version as opposed to the song itself, that's not to say the track itself is weak. They provide an interpretation that retains the song's melancholy while also making it danceable. As a recording, I enjoy listening to it but I do have to call it out for an artistic err in judgment; the song's greatest value is the strong message of its lyrics and there's too many places where those lyrics are distorted and faded into the background ultimately doing the song a disservice.

The original title of "Muppets: The Green Album" was "Muppets Revisited" first announced in 2009.

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 arrangement.

The biggest 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.

I mentioned earlier how the songs from The Muppet Movie are very much singers' songs which is why I felt a little let down by Matt Nathanson's "I Hope That Something Better Comes Along". I love the very sharp distinct musical phrases in the original and a lot of them are lost due to the fact that Nathanson provides a loose jazz spin on the song. But that's not a bad thing and I'll be the first to admit that again this comes down to a personal bias. Given its context in The Muppet Movie (Kermit comes upon Rowlf playing piano in a restaurant), a lazy jazz piano-based take of the song is fully valid and unlike the distillation of the original song's phrasing in "Movin' Right Along", the lack of them here is borne out of the artistic license allowed by the chosen genre rather than any musical naivety and so I can't really fault it (even though it would still be possible to retain both elements).

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.

With each copy of "Muppets: The Green Album", fans will receive a booklet with lyrics and more illustrated Muppet graphics. The CD itself is similar to the cover without the bands' names over Kermit's face.

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.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

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.

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