Normally, Johnny M plays the part of musical guru and reviewer for the site, mainly because A) he’s a musician; and B) he has excellent taste in music. I, on the other hand, am not a musician, and I still feel human musical achievement hit its peak with Debbie Gibson’s Electric Youth. However, I know what I like, even if I don’t have the musical vocabulary to really explain why. And you know what I always like? Muppets.
2011 is turning into the Year of the Muppets, and I couldn’t be more pleased. If you’re a Gen X’er, odds are there’s a permanent little place in your heart for the felt and googly-eyed antics of the Muppets. If not, you’re obviously dead inside, and I pity you. What’s less certain is how younger generations feel about the Muppets. Though the gang has had sporadic appearances and hits throughout the years, they haven’t had the enormous cultural impact they had in the early 80s. So, taking a year or so to introduce (and re-introduce) themselves to the masses is a clever marketing strategy.
I hate to haul out my bucket of cynicism for anything even remotely related to the Muppets, but I had initial misgivings about The Green Album, an ultra-hipster collection of covers of Muppet musical classics. When I first heard about it, I was skeptical. It felt a little too calculated. But gone are the days when puppets accidentally become superstars. They’re a corporation. The key is making sure they never feel like a corporation.
Having listened to The Green Album a few times now, I can honestly say that, for the most part, it’s a fresh and clever presentation of songs that will be instantly familiar to some and brand new to others (no easy task). Indie and internet favorite OK Go has the honor of performing the “Muppet Show Theme Song” (check out the video below). While the video makes good use of the Muppets and their energy and personality, the vocals are a bit subdued for the theme song. However, the production is solid, and the driving guitar and synthesizers keep the energy up to the end and give it a modern feel.
As one of the most beloved songs of all time, “Rainbow Connection” is a daunting task. Weezer makes the wise choice not to do too drastic of a re-interpretation. Instead, they keep it simple, add in some subtle swamp sound effects and have Hayley Williams chime in to turn it into a duet. The song has a nice build and intensifies in just the right places.
Also successful are “Movin’ Right Along” by Alkaline Trio, “I Hope That Something Better Comes Along” by Matt Nathanson and “Mr. Bassman” by Sondre Lerche. “Movin’” has a fun, energetic and surprisingly modern feel to it, transforming the original from a classic road trip song into a great friendship song. “I Hope That Something Better Comes Along” is best known for its ample use of dog-related puns and metaphors, but Matt Nathanson manages to ground it as a piano- and vocals-driven pub anthem about the masochistic longing for true love. “Mr. Bassman” is given a nice folksy re-interpretation that works well with Lerche’s smooth, rich vocal style.
“Wishing Song” by The Airborne Toxic Event and “Night Life” by Brandon Saller both have slightly harder edges than the originals, but both work nicely. Saller, especially, infuses “Night Life” with the kind of hard-driving rock elements that the Electric Mayhem’s Floyd might have delivered in a cult-favorite solo album.
The Muppets have always been fearless in tackling more emotional concepts, like love, loss and self-acceptance, and “Bein’ Green” and “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” are both lovely entries here. Andrew Bird keeps “Bein’ Green” the simple and homespun contemplation it is, adding in some nice strings work and just the right amount of wistful longing and gentle self-realization. Rachael Yamagata’s “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” works best when it’s just her haunting, breathy vocals mixed with some beautiful flute solos. The additional vocals come and go, adding a few unnecessary “ditty-dums” that distract from the emotional impact of the song, which is such a raw longing for love, hope and companionship. If I could just get a mix removing the additional vocals, it would be close to perfect.
The original “Mahna Mahna” (and its performance on The Muppet Show) is a tribute to extemporaneous jazz and the barely contained chaos that underlies every Muppet venture. The Fray does a nice job for the most part, but lacks the energy and joy of singing outside the lines.
Less successful are “Our World” by My Morning Jacket and “Halfway Down the Stairs” by Amy Lee, both of which are missteps in production and interpretation. While the harmonies in “Our World” are pitch perfect, the odd, whispering falsettos used for the “Brothers” portion of the song are distracting and feel out of place. “Halfway Down the Stairs” is musically and vocally overwrought, the exact opposite of what you want in a musical version of an A.A. Milne poem, but absolutely what you want in an Evanescence song. The poem, a quiet contemplation of a child’s place in the world, never felt like all it was missing was a drum machine. I’ll take Robin’s version.
I almost passed on getting “The Green Album,” but I’m glad I went for it. It’s surprisingly addictive, and I keep hitting the replay button when the album ends. In the Year of the Muppets, it’s a fun, diverse way to while away some time, waiting for the new movie to come out in November. It’s a must for Muppets fans and a perfectly acceptable musical gateway to the Muppets for any lover, dreamer or you.