Monday, August 23, 2010

Puttin' on the Ritz Do Velvet Underground

Tribute albums, remakes, transformations of classic music. . . these have been with us for some time. When I was a kid my father got an album of the Glenn Miller Orchestra (under the direction of Ray McKinley). Now it was fine for what it was, more or less their greatest hits redone in STEREO! No, wait, it was in HI FI! Comparing the new versions with the originals (which was easy because RCA simultaneously released a companion album with the original tracks) made you realize that there was a certain something missing. Too many years had elapsed since those first recordings and the band just sounded more modern and less idiomatic than the original gathering. Now that's not how I put it to myself then, but I did notice a big difference.

The same risks are inherent in remakes of Sgt Peppers, Tommy, the music of the Smiths, Charlie Parker tribute albums, and on and on.

The group Puttin' on the Ritz, which has as its core members singer BJ Rubin and drummer Kevin Shea, have chosen to do an avant-jazz-laced remake of the Velvet Underground's second album White Light, White Heat (Hot Cup). Now there's an idea. They do not try to reproduce the proto-punk, tube frazzling ambiance of the original band, which would doom the project to a kind of limbo world of what it sounds like to try and sound like that 40 years later (like that Glenn Miller platter). Instead they give it a horns and mayhem sort of retake, which could work wonderfully. If it doesn't, it's not for the instrumental part of the music. No. Moppa Elliot, bass, Nate Wooley, trumpet, Jon Irabagon, sax, and Sam Kulik, trombone, join with drummer Shea in a raucous send-off that is exquisitely over-the-top (and a kudo to organist Matt Motel for his cheesy Farfisa-isms on the last cut). No wonder. Most of these folks have been doing excellent send-offs in the band Mostly Other people Do the Killing and other project groupings.

What they do plays in and out with the simple garage musical elements of the original, getting almost referential or parallel to the original parts at points, and then getting totally out there in ways that are as funny as they are energized.

No, sorry, but what strikes me as not quite working are the vocals of B J Rubin. He's very articulate in getting across the lyrics, for one thing. Those lyrics worked so effectively because they were half-mumbled, in Lou Reed's case, or delivered off-kilter with that hint of an accent (in the case of Nico). Reed was a master at doing the vocals badly but iconically. He made the "bad is good" aesthetic work in ways very few could. Nico was Nico, and BJ's casual reading of her one song from the album just doesn't stand comparison.

Further, the lyrics are sometimes downright stupid when articulated clearly--especially the long babble of "Sister Ray." B J Rubin has a sort of wise-ass nouveaux-punk style that no doubt is fine for many sorts of projects. It just doesn't cut it for the Velvets.

So what we have here is a glorious failure. The music is extraordinarily interesting at times. It would be great without those vocals. But I suppose then it would lose its point.

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