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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1545

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The New Standards: Rock and Roll
by George Graham

(Princess Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/21/2009)

Cover bands are not something we generally deal with in this album review series. Originality is one of our more important criteria. But this week, we have an interesting, creative and entertaining band who devote themselves to other people's music. And as you may suspect, they usually approach it an unexpected way. They call themselves the New Standards, and their new, second CD is called Rock and Roll.

The Twin Cities-based New Standards are a trio consisting of three former members of alternative rock bands who arrange songs, generally from the alternative rock era, for piano, acoustic bass and vibes. They have the potential be a kind of lounge act, or a jazz trio, but the New Standards manage to greatly alter the texture of the music they cover, but at the same time, keep the rock spirit and energy level on their acoustic instruments. It's a clever combination, and they pull it off well.

The New Standards are pianist and vocalist Chan Polling who was part of the 1980s band The Suburbs. On bass and vocals is John Munson, who was a part of the bands Trip Shakespeare, and later the platinum-selling Semisonic. And on the vibes is Steve Roehm, who played with the bands Billygoat and Electropolis. It's a band configuration that certainly bespeaks jazz, but though the instrumentation is there, these guys came up through the alternative rock scene, and still sound it, even though everything they play is acoustic and they appear in all of their publicity photos in natty suits.

The band previously released an eponymous recording which had a mix which included more songs that might be appropriate for such an acoustic configuration, such as September Song, but in keeping with the title of this CD, the New Standards do music running from the Clash to Elvis Costello to Lou Reed to Lieber and Stoller, and in almost all cases, their treatment of the songs is engaging, often ingenious and yet able to convey the original mood of the tunes, something that can easily get lost in translation as has been the case with other radical cover bands.

The New Standards commence their CD with the title track, Rock and Roll, a Lou Reed tune, originally recorded by the Velvet Underground. The band definitely captures the essence of the song, with Poling resembling Lou Reed's sound. <<>>

One of the departures from the original sound of a song comes on track Hey Ya, made into a hit by the band Outkast. The New Standards may get a bit carried away with their vocals, but they do make it fun. <<>>

One of their best reimaginations of a song is their treatment of Elvis Costello's classic Watching the Detectives, which The New Standards turn into something that might have come out film noir. <<>>

From the alternative rock world, the New Standards serve up the Replacements song Androgynous, which sums up the band's approach -- the lounge-type instrumentation with the punky undercurrent. <<>>

While most of the songs covered on this CD are from the alternative rock scene or its direct predecessors, they tackle a classic soul song, Sam Cooke's Bring It On Home To Me. It's the most radical transformation that the New Standards do on this CD. It's definitely interesting, but I still have not decided whether I really like it or not. <<>>

The band go back to the alternative rock scene for their version of the Clash's signature song London Calling, and they make it one of the highlights of the CD. <<>>

Also quite clever is Toxic, made famous by Britney Spears. The choice of the tune demonstrated ingenuity, as did they way they transmogrified it... <<>> including a kind of jazzy segment at the end. <<>>

The CD ends with an odd Leiber and Stoller song called It That All There Is?, which sounds like a kind of Kurt Weill cabaret song. The instrumentation works well. <<>>

Over the years, there have been a number of what could be called "transformationl cover bands," who established themselves from the way they would alter familiar songs. Some were novelty acts like Dread Zeppelin, who did Led Zeppelin tunes in reggae style with an Elvis impersonator as lead vocalist. There was also the group Those Darn Accordions, who did rock tunes with a bunche of squeeze boxes. Many of those groups were essential one-joke bands. The New Standards might be considered of that ilk, but they are more wide-ranging and rather than just radically rearrange songs for the sake of doing it, they manage to capture the spirit of the tunes they metamorphose. The all acoustic instrumentation including the upright bass and vibes may remind one of a jazz combo, but they don't get really into the harmonic sophistication that jazz musicians do when they rearrange rock songs. The New Standards definitely approach things from a rock perspective. Interestingly, on their website, the band solicits suggestions from fans for songs they could do.

Our grade for sound quality is an "A-minus" with good clarity and a nice sound on the acoustic bass, but we'll deduct points for the volume compression used on the recording to make it artificially loud.

Obviously some people may be turned off by the way the New Standards take liberties with what may be cherished hit songs for some. But with an open mind and a receptivity to musical wit, you're likely to find The New Standards' Rock and Roll to be a clever and entertaining album.

(c) Copyright 2009 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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