Postmodern Jukebox dials the clock back on contemporary pop, invigoratingly bringing the best out of their source material as well as their vibrant interpretations.
By Matt Hanson
The cover song, particularly the kind that reaches across genres, is an especially beloved phenomenon. Jeff Buckley’s prayer-like “Hallelujah,” Johnny Cash’s soul-bearing “Hurt,” John Coltrane’s transcendent “My Favorite Things,” and Whitney Houston’s epic “I Will Always Love You” (just to name a few) are immortal not only because they are good songs in themselves but also because they radically transform their source material into something entirely new.
Postmodern Jukebox, a musical collective organized by jazz pianist Scott Bradlee, takes modern-day pop songs and reimagines them in the light of classic and unfortunately ignored genres. Usually the chosen songs are recast as 1920s-style jazz tunes, with occasional nods to Motown, bluegrass, doo-wop, klezmer, and soul. PMJ makes good on their stated goal of dialing the clock back on contemporary pop—vibrant interpretations invigorate source material.
According to its stratospheric amount of YouTube clicks (over 11 million and counting), the most popular PMJ song is a version of Radiohead’s “Creep,” redone as a 1940s-style torch ballad sung brilliantly by Haley Reinhart. It’s not just a gimmick. The brooding alienation of the original is turned into a sexy, slow-burning anthem performed with a vulnerability that inexplicably turns into triumph. It also switches the gender roles; instead of being the passive object of desire, in this version it’s the woman who affirms her awkwardness and longing.
PMJ’s (post) modern update on vintage jazz reminds us that beneath all the glitz and glamour, the music is very much about female empowerment. The jazz singer might well play up her sex appeal, shimmying while decked out in fabulous costumes, but it goes beyond showiness and becomes a way of taking control of the stage and broadcasting the singer’s personality as boldly and confidently as possible.
It’s interesting to see how some contemporary pop songs aren’t necessarily that far from what was on the radio a hundred years ago. I’m sure plenty of flappers could have easily jitterbugged along to PMJ’s version of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” sung with campy lip-curled relish by Ariana Savalas and featuring a tap dancer and a horn section. Zelda Fitzgerald would have been proud. This also applies to PMJ’s versions of “Single Ladies” by Beyoncé, and a particularly ebullient take on Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood,” adding a trombone solo and some ultra-precise scat singing.
Another pleasure of cover versions is that a good cover can take a boring song and give it new life, making it interesting and vital, finding something galvanic in the boring or saccharine. Celine Dion’s dreadful “My Heart Will Go On” loses its tacky melodrama when it’s delivered via a vocally acrobatic Jackie Wilson-style rave up.
The risk with a musical project like this is that it will degenerate into a stunt, getting by with focusing on the surprise of the song selection and the novelty of the style. Or it turns into a nostalgia-fest, where the sound becomes simulacrum instead of inspiration. Playing these songs live is the true test of their quality. It’s similar to the way actors love the immediacy of theatre rather than the tedium of movie production: it’s harder and more challenging to do it live where the proof is in the audience’s reaction.
When I saw PMJ’s concert at The Wilbur in Boston last Monday, I was glad to see that solid musicianship and playful collaboration made the songs work. The PMJ musical ensemble switched genres a dozen times over the course of the evening and never let the pace sag or become too loosely structured. Singing duties alternated from song to song and singers often changed verses within the same song. At one point, the drummer and the tap dancer challenged each other to a percussive duet, won in my view and by popular consensus by Sarah Reich’s nimble dancing.
The clever cover selections were out in full force, as well. Fountains of Wayne’s power pop ditty “Stacy’s Mom” was remade into a bluegrass hootenanny. The Postal Service’s abstract “Such Great Heights” got a ’70s style makeover, giving it a Jackson 5-ish funkiness that fit surprisingly well. There were a few clunkers: Beyoncé’s “Halo,” “All About That Bass,” and “Hey There Delilah” each missed their respective marks, but that may have been because the original songs gave the band less to play with.
By the end of the night, PMJ finally got the attentive but staid crowd (this is Puritan country, after all) to get up on stage and dance. The final number of the evening was, true to form, a cover version of the theme from Casablanca, but this time it wasn’t drastically different in format than the original, which was an unexpected but poignant way of ending the evening.
After a night spent impishly deconstructing new songs by making them sound old, hearing the band perform a classic as originally intended proved that, for all their whimsicality, Postmodern Jukebox’s project is really about reverence for the sounds and styles of the past, not just mimicry for the ironic consumption of the present.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.