Our Spotlight Team’s examination of the lounge side of the moon concludes with an Englishman who is usually categorized as “blue-eyed soul” (like The Righteous Brothers) but who is actually a much more complicated man (like Shaft).

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Rock Swings: On the Wild Side of Swing released in 2006

Paul Young had several easy-listening hits in the U.K. in the 1980s and one in the U.S., “Every Time You Go Away,” a Hall & Oates cover, in 1985. Looking back, I can hear his expertise as an interpreter of pop and R&B, but in those years I paid no attention to him. I was probably too busy with Duran Duran.

Young has overcome health crises that at times robbed him of his voice. He’s been committed to his music for more than 40 years. (He also built a back-up career as a celebrity chef.) He seems to be the kind of person who lives to try something new, as in 2006 when he followed Paul Anka’s lead and recorded Vegas interpretations of rock songs.

Young has a beautiful voice that has significantly deepened since he was 29 and looked like a stunt double for somebody in Wham! or Spandau Ballet. His voice reminds me of Lou Rawls’, though it’s not as deep and smoky. He sings without trying to sound black; Paul Young is always Paul Young. And unlike Pat Boone, this man is built for a swingin’ set of rock ’n’ roll.

Unfortunately, on Rock Swings: On the Wild Side of Swing, Young can’t decide to love or laugh at these songs. He’s not a Richard Cheeseball, but most of these covers don’t work – for example, Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets,” which is like a marching band crashing a funeral, or Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” which is neither wild nor walkable.

Two songs redeemed this disc…

Pat Boone covered Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” on I’m in a Metal Mood, but he didn’t know what to do with this nightmare on Elm Street. Richard Cheese attacked it on Aperitif for Destruction, but I hit Skip inside the first minute. On Rock Swings, Young captures the horror. It’s an adolescent’s idea of horror – look who wrote it – but he captured it just the same.

(“Enter Sandman” ties “Black Hole Sun” for the most popular number among lounge singers – reinterpreted three times each. Why? The two songs are nothing like each other, except that all the people who originally performed them had terrible hair.)

Young also covers David Bowie’s “The Jean Genie.” He’s the only man in this foursome to try on some Bowie. (Cheese covered “Under Pressure,” but that’s a Queen song written by Bowie.) His cover swings like the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra commuting to work on jungle vines.

…and one song escaped it

I don’t spend much time listening to Eminem. In fact, I don’t spend any time listening to Eminem. “Lose Yourself,” an 800-word essay on becoming a star, was a blank to me.

On his cover of “Lose Yourself,” Young reimagines himself as the rapper, though they’re from radically different generations and cultures. The one man’s voice and the other man’s words had me at hello:

Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted
One moment
Would you capture it or just let it slip?

The arrangement is stellar, the kind of thing that Nelson Riddle would’ve whipped up for a Sinatra showstopper. The producer doubles Young’s stunning vocal so that he’s singing back-up for himself, but the producer also dropped words at random from this backing track. Young singing the lead while his duplicate appears and disappears behind him produces a staccato effect that makes it sound as if he’s singing and rapping the lyrics at the same time.

Eminem’s words must have spoken to something in Paul Young’s DNA:

You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime

And when Young gets to the spoken-word part, you can believe it when he says “motherfuckin’.” This is so not Pat Boone observing, “Yeah, we’re runnin’ a little bit hot tonight,” while wandering aimlessly inside Van Halen’s “Panama.”

Young’s Rock Swings doesn’t have anywhere near the overall consistency of Paul Anka’s Rock Swings, but “Lose Yourself” is the brightest, sharpest gem of all the music I’ve been writing about this week.

Eminem’s original is not bad, but he’s no Paul Young.

Thanks for reading along, and I hope you now find yourself ready to engage with compelling Vegas-based content. Go easy on the martinis and don’t be a stranger in the night.

 

To prolong the suspense, or the agony, of our Spotlight Team’s series on lounge versions of pop songs, we pause tonight to consider the question Frank Sinatra would surely ask if he were still with us: How am I supposed to swing with the broads when it’s nothin’ but lugs in here?

Excellent question, Mr. Chairman. We have only a small pool of data to work with, but so far every practitioner of this strange art has been a white male. (The gentleman I’ll introduce tomorrow doesn’t break the pattern.) Where are the women? Why can’t we have an album of swinging rock music by Diana Krall or Cassandra Wilson?

Possible explanations: The women are not interested. They’re not nerds. The music is weird. They have better things to do. They don’t want to record an album of rock or hip-hop in the Las Vegas style and then have millions of middle-aged male trolls whine on Twitter that “You’ve stolen my childhood!”

There’s yet another question that Sinatra wouldn’t have thought of asking – Why is it that Pat Boone, Paul Anka, Richard Cheese, and tomorrow’s guest, who are all men, only cover songs by men? – but I don’t have an answer and frankly that’s quite enough diversity for tonight. Equality takes time, female readers, especially when you’re a male.

(Just to be fair: Cheese covered Madonna’s “Material Girl.” Isn’t that enough?)

Let’s check the inbox

When my friend Paul appeared on NPR after his first book was published, he quickly eviscerated the caller with the opening question. “That’ll teach her to participate,” he told me later.

It is with a similarly generous spirit that I turn to a just-received comment from a Mr. Jerry Kaufman of Seattle, Washington. Jerry and I met in a trench outside of Sevastopol during the Crimean War. The British accused Jerry of colluding with the Russians, but I just laughed. I knew he was good-bad but not evil.

At the time of our meeting, Jerry was an advanced music fan with a record collection I envied and who was about to form a New Wave or No Wave band called Pictures of Vegetables. You can tell right there that he and his bandmates (they might not all have known that they were his bandmates) cared not a bit for commercial success. I would’ve changed at least three words in that name, but then I’m a crass person who has a love-hate relationship with money.

Jerry writes: “So have you listened to a band called Nouvelle Vague? They do lounge covers of 1970s and 1980s songs (for example, ‘Blister in the Sun’).”

Excellent! A band I had never heard of. However, this collective of sexy French people plays bossa nova, not lounge. If you like Brazilian pop – even Frankie did – you’ll enjoy their debut album, Nouvelle Vague (2004), though I got tired of them messing around with their tricks a ways before the 14 tracks ended.

The highlights for me were The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton,” Modern English’s “I Melt with You,” The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” (one of my favorite songs), and the song that never fails to make me turn my head to hide my tears, The Dead Kennedys’ “Too Drunk to Fuck,” which sounds far better than the original when the lyrics are sung with a French accent.

Thank you for writing in, sir.

Tomorrow: We’re done!

 

This is Part III of our investigation of Las Vegas and what the Rat Pack can do with rock ’n’ roll. Tonight the Spotlight Team revisits a record I reviewed in 2013.

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Rock Swings released in 2005

Here’s what I said:

I respect Paul Anka for his creativity; he wrote for Buddy Holly and Frank Sinatra, and how many people can say that? But Anka is also responsible for three crimes against humanity: “Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” “Puppy Love,” and the ultimate in offensiveness at the molecular level, “(You’re) Having My Baby.”

I stand by this statement, but after five years of thinking it over (I had nothing else to do), I must make two emendations:

1) The more I learn about Paul Anka, the more impressed I become. He’s recorded 45 albums, which puts him ahead of The Rolling Stones, Santana, The Muppets, and even Mannheim Steamroller. He’s been a success since I was a baby, and I was a baby when Athens fought Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, and also based on things my parents have said I believe I wasn’t a success being a baby.

2) I wrote that Rock Swings “just slips in as a Buy.” As we say in the porn biz, “This is so wrong.” I’ve learned to appreciate this record. I’ve learned to love this record. This is a fun record! It’s not only the best overall example of all this lounging around in the rock arena; if I had to make a list of the 50 best albums of the ’00s, Rock Swings would be 49th or 50th. (Full disclosure: I only know about 50 albums from the ’00s.)

I don’t know if Anka modeled any part of his career on Sinatra, but I’m convinced that if Sinatra had ever decided to play the same game as Pat Boone and Richard Cheese, the result would’ve been very close to Rock Swings.

And yet Rock Swings, as superb as it is, does not provide the ultimate thrill of this weird, lonely rock-as-lounge genre. Nor does it answer this question: Can you enjoy these covers if you’ve never heard the originals? Because up until this point, I knew almost all the originals.

In Part IV, we unveil the man and the mystery song that punctured the blood-brain barrier and inspired my co-workers to insist I wear headphones.

Soundgarden trivia

Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” was covered by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, Paul Anka, and, of course, Richard Cheese, making it the single most popular tune among Vegas-style crooners. I can see why Pat Boone passed on it – he was doing metal covers, and in 1997, Soundgarden wasn’t metal, it was grunge. That distinction is meaningless today. But the song is about as speedy as a 15-year-old retired corgi. It was perfect for Pat.

 

In Part II of our series on rock and other genres poured through the coffee filter of what I’m loosely calling “lounge,” our Spotlight Team turns to the man who believes he’s cheddar, the singular most popular cheese in the world, when he’s not even Venezuelan beaver cheese and in fact the van broke down ages ago: Mark Jonathan Davis, better known as Richard Cheese.

RC-LOGO-VEGAS-PREMASTER.jpgLounge Against the Machine (2000), Tuxicity (2003), Aperitif for Destruction (2005), I’d Like a Virgin (2006), OK Bartender (2010), Supermassive Black Tux (2015), and too many more to fuck with

Cheese’s raison d’etre is to sing lounge versions of songs that are tasteless (Nirvana’s “Rape Me”), anything with an impolite word (Radiohead’s “Creep,” Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up”*), songs that can be rearranged in preposterous ways (U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” rewired as a cha-cha), or songs that were already dumb when they were hatched (Nena’s “99 Luftballoons”).

* I am thankful that “Smack My Bitch Up” only has eight words. (The other four are “Change my pitch up.”) The eight words are credited to five writers, which sounds like the writing credits to the typical Star Trek movie.

Weird Al makes up new lyrics for existing songs to express his own ideas. Cheese lets the existing lyrics speak for themselves by setting them in this fake Vegas tiara. After four or five cuts on the first album you’ve basically heard everything he’s going to give you in the next hundred, but he does have some surprises up his cummerbund. His cover of “Only Happy When It Rains” by Garbage is serious and almost emotional. That’s a tsunami in a shot glass for Cheese.

Cheese’s voice is above average, but it’s brassy, without much nuance. He can growl, sort of, but he never loses his passing vocal resemblance to Steve Martin. His arrangements are for small groups of musicians who can really swing, and I like how he compresses almost everything into a 2-minute formula so you’re never marooned in his shtick for long. His best cuts are his covers of “Creep” (clever) and Coldplay’s “Yellow” (hilarious). His jazz arrangement of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” has some voltage. However, his real contributions to popular culture are his album titles.

There’s not much call for Richard Cheese around these parts, and if in fact he ever infiltrates our place of residence I hope the dog eats him.

Consumer note

If you ever see Cheese live: He’s sick and tired of people yelling “Free Bird!” at his concerts. Be sure you yell it.

Coming up in Parts III and IV: People who sing like they mean it.

 

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Plenty of classical and jazz musicians have crossed over to rock ’n’ roll, but not many crooners. Where are the interpreters in the style of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, and Tony Bennett?

There’s a stream of jazz musicians interpreting rock today, and as for classical musicians, that stream is a Class 5 whitewater adventure. You can’t swing a sackbut in a concert hall without hitting yet another eager band of classical musicians who are ready to step up and throw down: 2Cellos, The Harp Twins, The Vitamin String Quartet, and, my favorite, Bella Electric Strings.

Qualifications for membership in Bella Electric Strings:

1. Must be white, female, and under 30
2. Must dislike food
3. Must play the violin

But who is performing the rock (and hip-hop) repertoire in a lounge/swing style? In this, Part I of a four-part investigation by our Spotlight Team, we look at our first competitor: Pat Boone.

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In a Metal Mood released in 1997

Boone, who made his reputation defusing black music for white teenagers in malt shops, goes for broke on 12 hard-rock classics, from Judas Priest to Led Zep. Sorry, Pat, no sale. The 1950s big-band arrangements and the chorus of women from the lite-rock channel are silly. Boone’s voice isn’t suited to this work; it’s smooth, seamless, and not at all steamy. Mitt Romney could’ve recorded this disc.

Of the 12 songs here, Dio’s “Holy Diver” works best as a bouncy lounge number, but Boone’s bland voice gets in the way. He doesn’t do too badly with Nazareth’s “Love Hurts”; the original moved at a Boone-like stroll. Unfortunately, that lack of speed makes the original and the cover boring.

His version of Van Halen’s “Panama” achieves some warmth, probably because Van Halen gave us a show tune with killer guitars. But when he gets to the spoken-word part about driving a car on a hot night and reaching down between his legs, he reminds you that he’s Pat Boone.

In a Metal Mood is not bad for a man who released his first record way back in 1956 (it was called Howdy!, the most inoffensive title in the history of titles), but, also, not good. I will say this for Pat: I’m convinced he was serious when he conceived this project. Plus he’s got titanium balls (though no common sense) for covering Metallica and Jimi Hendrix.

Am I experiencing a jab of guilt, or is it just an undigested bit of beef?

Sometimes even Run-DMSteve must be fair. Pat Boone in his prime had a fine-tuned voice with some power behind it, and he made what changes he could to keep his career going for decades. He had a record in the Billboard Top 40 every week for four consecutive years. In the decade of the ’50s there was only one artist who outsold him and that artist was somebody named Elvis. I don’t care for Boone’s music and this particular project was ill-advised, but look, he tried.

This is more than I can say for the 14 or so artists who put together Lounge-A-Palooza in the same year, all of whom should’ve been stopped at the border and incarcerated in wire cages and separated for months from their instruments. Sadly, this includes Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, who covered Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.” Compared to them, Pat would’ve thrown up his rawkfist.

 

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Is this the Lucky dog?

No, but this is a photo of Lucky, our dog. The rest is fake news — and my latest attempt to go viral. Today, inserting the word “billionaire” in your headline guarantees the attention of hordes of people starved for billionairic news. This is what happened to Fortune magazine recently when they ran a story about Billionaire Kylie Jenner (who, it turns out, isn’t a billionaire).

I don’t know who this woman is. I do know that the Jenners are always at war with the Kardassians. I also know that the Kardassians are a tribe of billionaire females who are always at war with their husbands. And I know all of this because when I pay for my food at the supermarket, the area set aside for the transfer of funds is always plastered with magazines with Jenners and Kardassians on their covers. In the United States, you can’t exchange funds for consumer commodities unless you’re in the presence of Jenners and Kardassians (and sometimes Jen, who is at war with Brad).

Sadly, inserting “billionaire” in your headline is unlikely to set your social media platform on fire because going viral is dependent on having millions, if not billions, of people already following you. Just like with Fortune. Run-DMSteve is short of that mark. Run-DMSteve regrets the error. Run-DMSteve wishes he’d never been born. Run-DMSteve is pleased to post yet another photo of a corgi. Corgis are not at war with anyone, except squirrels and, in the case of one of our dogs, birds.

This is also the time to share a photo of my 91-year-old father and his new cat, Miss Ellie.

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Run-DMIrving and Miss Ellie discuss Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.

Miss Ellie is eight months old. She has a tail wide enough to wash a car. She likes food, greeting people, and watching Dad. If you’re outside the house and she’s lounging in a windowsill, she looks like a visit from a skunk. The two of them seem well-suited, napping, noshing, and watching Animal Planet.

Next week we’ll get back to some hard-core, way-off-base music writing. Until then, I hope you’re enjoying the summer, except in those areas where tariffs have been placed on your weather or you’ve been placed in a wire cage for the crime of being one of the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. Stay strong and thanks for clicking, forwarding, pinning, retweeting, or accidentally hitting the wrong key.

Random Picks of the Day
The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975 (1975)
Hard Rain (1976)
Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan

You don’t think of Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan as a rocker? These live albums tell a different story. They’re a mix of hard rock and acoustic folk from the Rolling Thunder Revue and its weird zoo of musicians. They’re not in the first rank of Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan albums, but they showcase the man in a way we’re not accustomed to.

I can’t say Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan is in good voice here, because he never had a voice. Sometimes he sounds like Bruce Springsteen in the wake of a root canal.

The main thing I got from listening is how reverentially the audience treated Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan when he played anything from the 1960s…even though the ’60s had only just ended. Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan was already a god.

I have two Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan memories.

I saw Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan at the Boston Garden in 1979 when he’d already slipped into gospel. It was disappointing and the crowd was restless. But in the middle of the show he abandoned his 149-piece band and his 385 back-up singers and played three classics from the ’60s all by his lonesome. All of us immediately shut the fuck up.

Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan captured the Rolling Thunder tour on film: Renaldo & Clara. I crammed into a two-door clown car with five other idiots and drove from Boston to Manhattan in freezing weather to watch the premiere. Naturally, one of the tires decided to deflate halfway through Connecticut. At the theater, I fell asleep in the first hour and woke up in the third and the movie was still crawling along!

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This cat is not a billionaire. Yet.

 

Every year on my birthday, my grandparents sent me cards with cash in them. My father’s parents, Rose and Sam, sent me $5. After Sam died, and as Rose came to depend more on her children, my Aunt Edith took over this birthday chore. She sent me the card, tucked in the $5 bill, and signed her mother’s name. I once asked her to stop. “I know it’s you behind this, and not Grandma,” I said. Aunt Edith repeated this to my father as further proof that I was a mensch. She thought I was adorable. By the way, I was 22 when we had this conversation, not 12. Edith sent the cards until Rose’s death and I kept raking in the $5.

My mother’s parents, Bella and Sol, were more affluent. They started me at $5 but through various cost-of-living adjustments raised me to $25 by the time I got to college. There I remained for many years after Grandpa Sol’s death, an early victim of contemporary capitalism’s rule that no one should ever get a raise. When I married the woman with whom I share a mortgage and put on parties, Grandma Bella sent her $25 on her first birthday in the family. I was outraged. She should start at the bottom and work her way up! Bella’s curt ruling: “Tough luck!”

It’s been many years since I received a fresh-from-the-bank $5 bill or a check written in the penmanship of someone who was born in 1904. But every year on my birthday, my current employer gives me a $10 gift card roguishly tucked into colored tissue paper inside a festive bag.

Last year my card was good at an upscale supermarket, New Seasons. I bought a fried chicken lunch and some stickers. This year the card was for the Pacific Northwest department store chain Fred Meyer. What the heck was I going to do with $10 at Fred Meyer? Buy socks? The closest store to our office doesn’t sell lunch, unless I wanted to buy something wrapped in plastic and vacuumed into a skinny box printed in primary colors. But I was up for the challenge. “I’m leaving now for Fred Meyer,” I told the boss at noon. “Don’t be surprised if I don’t come back.”

It was a beautiful day here in Portland and I drove with the windows down and my music playing. Though I am a man of a certain age, I felt ageless as I walked in, and I realized I was thinking of my grandparents and their birthday gifts and all the useless stuff I bought and how much fun it all was. I’m not saying my job is my family, but I am saying thanks for the free money.

I bought 18 colored pencils and I still have $1.02 remaining on the card. The sky’s the limit.

To my readers in the United States (what’s left of it): Happy Fourth of July! I hope you’re enjoying our nation’s birthday as much as I am. It’s late in the day. Soon I shall be drinking the Bloody Marys of Liberty. I don’t expect Trump to send me a card with five bucks in it, either.

Random Pick of the Day
Smashing Pumpkins, Pisces Iscariot (1994)
My father-in-law used to say about dogs, “They only have one thing to say and only one way to say it.” Billy Corgan’s voice is about as versatile. He usually sounds as if he has a grievance, if he could just remember it. The rest of the time he sounds like his voice just changed, or maybe he’s feeling faint.

Despite this handicap, when Smashing Pumpkins starts to move, they’re a blend of Cream, Hendrix, and Led Zep in a Nirvana shot glass. They can be unexpectedly quiet, too, as on the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” Corgan doesn’t have much of a voice, but I can forgive him for his guitar-playing (“Starla” and everything else).

Random Pan of the Day
The Rolling Stones, Blue & Lonesome (2016)
Their first album since A Bigger Bang in 2005. This time around we have 12 covers of old blues songs. They did this in 1964! Eric Clapton helps out. He could’ve helped out in 1964. Yawn. The only person who triumphs on this record is Mick Jagger. His voice and his harmonica are in excellent shape, plus Mick still weighs less than a wet hobbit in a bathing suit.