By Stewart Mason
MARCH 13, 2000:
Various Artists Knitting on the Roof (Knitting Factory)
Just like it sounds, Knitting on the Roof finds 13 denizens of New York's avant-jazz-rock-etc. performance space the Knitting Factory performing the complete song score from the '60s Broadway smash Fiddler on the Roof. It's not a joke, but a sincere, multi-layered tribute done in collaboration with the Jewish Alternative Movement, a loosely-affiliated collective exploring themes of Jewish identity in Western popular music.
Several of the artists blend klezmer and free jazz, as in "Tradition" by the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars, "To Life" by Naftule's Dream and "Wedding Celebration" by Hasidic New Wave. Others simply perform the show tunes like originals. A simple acoustic-folky "Sunrise Sunset" would have sounded fine on Jill Sobule's own album, incomparable free jazz tenor David S. Ware totally deconstructs "Far from the Home I Love" and Come refashion "Do You Love Me?" in their own downers-and-angst image. (The Residents, Negativland and Eugene Chadbourne are incapable of not sounding like themselves, so their contributions are less notable in this fashion.)
But the best tributes are the ones where the original songs and the cover artists meet somewhere in the middle, revealing unexpected aspects to both. Elliott Sharp's guitar-orchestra version of "Chava Ballet Sequence" sounds as frenzied as his own works can be, but within a more focused structure, and the chaos-threatening-to-explode feeling works beautifully for those who are familiar with its place in the original musical. But the pinnacle -- and reason enough to buy the album by itself -- is the Magnetic Fields' version of the show's hit, "If I Were A Rich Man." You have not lived until you've heard Stephin Merritt sing "deedle-eedle-eedle-eedle, deedle-eedle-eedle-ee." Both loving tribute and wild recontextualization, Knitting on the Roof is an exceptional creation.
The start-of-a-new-decade switch from Capitol to their own Brother label (a vanity logo funded by Warner Brothers) seemed to do the Beach Boys good at first; their first album under the new contract, 1970's Sunflower, is one of their all-time best. Unfortunately, you couldn't really tell it from the selection here, which passes over some of the album's best tracks. Points for including the fairly obscure but rocking B-side "Susie Cincinnati," though.
No such faults with the selection from 1971's Surf's Up, featuring three of the band's all-time classics: Bruce Johnston's swooningly lovely "Disney Girls (1957)," Brian Wilson's haunting "Til I Die" and the title track, a song rescued from 1967's aborted Smile project, mixing new vocals and instruments to a voice and piano track Brian recorded in 1966. "Surf's Up," in either the 1966 solo version (available on the Good Vibrations boxed set) or the full-band 1971 version, could be possibly the greatest song the Beach Boys ever did, which makes it a strong candidate for The Greatest Song Ever.
The album wisely downplays 1972's Carl and the Passions' So Tough album, with only the funky "Marcella" making the cut. 1973's Holland is suitably honored with three cuts, including the classic single "Sail On Sailor" and the best segment of the lengthy "California Saga," an over-literal expansion of Smile's impressionistic masterpiece "Cabinessence."
Unfortunately, Brian Wilson's sharply decreased role in the band after Holland, coupled with the overbearing, nostalgia-oriented presence of Mike Love, surely one of the most detestable figures in pop music history, means that all of the Beach Boys' albums after Holland just plain suck. Well, there's 1975's Love You, an attempt to force a "comeback" album out of a clearly mentally-ill Brian, but that's more weird and creepy than actually good. There are a couple of pleasant but slight singles, "Good Timin'" and "Getcha Back," and the enjoyably strange "Honkin' Down the Highway," but that's about it for the last half of this CD. On the other hand, they get enormous credit for not including 1988's hideous "Kokomo."
So really, if you're already a Beach Boys fan, there's no need to buy this because there's nothing you haven't heard. If you don't know much past Pet Sounds or the surf singles, this is a handy enough introduction, but you might be better served by waiting a couple of months. Capitol is reissuing the Brother catalogue with improved sound and bonus tracks, and you might as well just buy Sunflower, Surf's Up, Holland and maybe Love You. You won't be missing much.
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