I have a very low tolerance for precious novelty interpretations of pop hits. I don’t really understand the concept.
Let’s take “Achy-Breaky Heart” as a case study. My problems with this song are as follows: repetitive melody; not particularly catchy melody; uninspired lyrics; Billy Ray Cyrus’ mullet.
None of these shortcomings are in any way corrected by an Alvin And The Chipmunks version of that song. So why, then, would I like that version, either? If anything, the song’s last problem is compounded when the song is being sung by vole-like creatures. At least Cyrus’ hairstyle ended at his neck. The Chipmunks sport full-body mullets…and there are three of them.
So a band doesn’t automatically get a free pass when they do a cover version of a hit song using alternative instruments or an unconventional musical arrangement. Wendy Carlos’ “Switched-On Bach” remains a classic for her thoughtful electronic re-interpretation of classical music. Through her synthesizers, she reveals new truths and beauty in the Brandenburg Concertos. You can’t, you know, duplicate that highly-satisfying result by dragging a MIDI file into a Casio keyboard. Not even if you go all-out and use Tone #062, aka “Space Meow.”
“Hard To Handle” was originally written and recorded by Otis Redding and I swear to God I knew that before I happened to Google for the name of the band that made it into a big hit in the 90’s, which I already knew was The Black Crowes but I thought it’d be good form just to double-check that.
I consider The Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain to be among the best five all-ukulele orchestras in the European Union and I’m willing to fight any man or woman who challenges me on that point. I happened to be in London while they were performing at the Barbican Centre, and happened to buy the very last seat available just a few hours before the show. I was very pleased to be the specific person responsible for that moment when the group’s manager leaned his head into the dressing room, pulled the cigar out of his mouth, and congratulating the UOoGB on having sold out the venue.
The tune’s a cover magnet. The melody and the lyrics are impeccably high-quality raw ingredients for a band and a singer to work with. It seems like there’s only one possible mistake to be made, and it’s an understandable one: the band and the singer can’t each be working so hard to sell the song that they wind up fighting each other. For sure, you can’t have a scenario in which they’re fighting and one side is clearly winning. I think that’s why the Crowes’ version isn’t my favorite, even though I like it lots.
The Ukulele Orchestra doesn’t make their whole playlist out of ukulele arrangements of hit songs, though they do great things with that line. I first heard about them via their version of “Psycho Killer”:
I love the fact that there’s a distinctly inverse relationship between how seriously they take themselves and how seriously they take their music. Admittedly such an inverse relationship is by no means unique among musicians but the Ukes have chosen put the bigger number on the “how good do they sound?” side of the equation. As demonstrated by this, their version of “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly”:
Their cover of “Hard To Handle” is true to the song’s origins. It manages to inject the right amount of aggression, soul, and glee that belongs in any proper version of this tune. This track’s been a mainstay of my playlists for so long that whenever I think “Hard To Handle” I instinctively hear the Ukes’ version and not one of the more blockbuster-ey ones.
Yup, I’m a fan. The Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain isn’t a comedy act and it isn’t a novelty act. It’s a musical act. I hope they make their way to New England some time. Their live show was tops and I’d love to see them again.
Try or buy “Hard To Handle” on the Amazon MP3 Store. As usual, that link is embedded with my Amazon associates code and anything you buy there after clicking the link results in my getting a few store credits…which, I promise you, I shall spend on foolish and wonderful things.
It’s (oh, right) Christmastime, so let’s close this one off with the Ukes’ version of “Blue Christmas.”