Friday, June 24, 2005

Music: Paul Anka, Rock Swings (2005)

When I heard about this album – Paul Anka doing big band covers of rock songs – I thought it was a joke. Kind of like the medley Joe Piscopo did as Frank Sinatra, moving from “Born To Run” into “Smoke on the Water.”

Then Rosemarie sampled the record online and said, “I think we need to buy this.” Now I can’t stop playing the damn thing.

Some of the songs have a lipstick-on-a-pig quality. No amount of showbiz pizzazz is going to make Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” sound better or R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” less obvious. At other times, Anka’s old school approach – adding a Count Basie call-and-response to Van Halen’s “Jump,” performing the Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s A Sin” as a bossa nova number – livens up unlikely material. He even brings some Threepenny Opera swagger to Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger.”

It’s no accident that the best covers are of songs that were strong to begin with, like Spandau Ballet’s “True” and especially “Wonderwall” by Oasis. And Anka’s take on Soundgarden’s “Blackhole Sun” is surprisingly potent. I was disappointed that he skipped the spoken word part of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without A Face.” I wanted to hear him say:

I’m on a bus, on a psychedelic trip,
Reading murder books and trying to stay hip.

And then we come to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The selection that has come in for the most scorn.

At times, Anka’s approach to the song imparts a Joel-Grey-in-CABARET vibe that’s wholly appropriate (“Hello, hello, hello, how low”). Seconds later, it seems an affront to the laws of God and man. But any recording that provokes such an intense response is worth listening to.

The lush arrangements unfortunately underscore how little depth most of these songs have. Conventional wisdom holds that popular music suffered with the advent of the singer-songwriter and the decline of the interpretive artist. Rock Swings bears that theory out.

Anka and Kurt Cobain make an odd pairing: the consummate pro and the tortured poet. Filmmaker Mike Figgis once said, “My heroes all seem to have been junkies ... they’re often very brave people who burned fast – because accelerated creativity yields a higher gain.” I’ve always found that argument absurd, so much so that I seem to have gone out of my way to avoid “junkie literature.” Many of the artists I admire are prolific, professional, and dismissed by critics as “slick.” As if productivity and devotion to craft couldn’t yield rewards of their own.

I suppose what I’m saying is that, on the Anka/Cobain spectrum, I tend toward the Paul Anka side. Just so you know.