If you grew up during the late ‘70s, then there’s a good chance you learned as many important life lessons from a frog, a pig, a bear, a dog, and a what-have-you, as you did from your parents and educators. Jim Henson’s lovable, furry Muppets always seemed to have a better grasp on what it’s like to be a human being than most human beings did. In his review of the 1977 film The Muppet Movie, critic Roger Ebert observed that “(The Muppets) are vain and hopeful, selfish and generous, complicated and true. They mirror ourselves, except that they’re a little nicer.”
The golden era of the Muppets may have ended with Henson’s untimely death in 1990, yet his characters never lost their dignity. They’ve remained a beacon of positive family entertainment for decades, equally appealing to adults as they are to children. Which is why the specter of Jason Segel’s upcoming Muppets reboot looms so ominously on the horizon.
Segel, of course, is not exactly Michael Bay. He apprenticed under Judd Apatow and wrote the screenplay for the modern comedy classic Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which got a serious lift from his puppet-performed Dracula musical. Unfortunately, it’s hard to trust anyone from Hollywood at this point. If the ‘80s were your decade, you’ve watched in puzzled disbelief over the last few years as clueless producers and executives have dug up every TV series, Saturday morning cartoon, and horror movie franchise, and cobbled together a slew of ghastly remakes, almost none of which give today’s moviegoer any inkling of what made the original material so appealing in the first place. They’ve taken our Karate Kid, our Smurfs, our A-Team. Hell, even Adventures in Babysitting is up on the chopping block. Even when they manage to coax the original gang back together, we end up with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
When the Muppets make their return to the big screen, they’ll be singing new songs penned by Fight of the Conchords Bret McKenzie (as well Jefferson Starship’s universally reviled “We Built This City”, according to the film’s trailer). With the unveiling of the new Muppet film still a few months off, the powers that be have chosen a collection of Muppet standards as performed by a diverse assembly of contemporary artists as a proper reintroduction. The Green Album finds musicians, most of whom are the right age to have grown up on the Muppets, offering their own respectful interpretations on a random assortment of timeless classics and deep cuts.
The majority of the artists on The Green Album roster handle their respective songs exactly how you’d expect them to. Andrew Bird turns in a charming “Bein’ Green” that’s buoyed by his masterful violin playing and trademark whistling. The Alkaline Trio give Kermit and Fozzie’s road anthem “Moving Right Along” a punk rock haircut, while Norwegian singer Sondre Lerche offers a playful acoustic version of the Scooter and Sgt. Floyd Pepper duet “Mr. Bassman”. Since Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo seems to be permanently tapped into his inner child, his band would seem like a logical choice to handle the holiest of all Muppet songs. Cuomo offers a glistening, pastoral take on “The Rainbow Connection” that winds up slightly diminished by the unnecessary presence of Paramore’s Hayley Williams. Cuomo’s voice and his bands uncharacteristically gentle playing are a perfect fit, yet Williams’ vocals distract where they should complement.
The songs that were chosen to appear on The Green Album will apparently mirror the plot of the upcoming Muppet film. There’s really no other way to explain why The Great Muppet Caper’s “Night Life” was chosen over material from the sadly ignored Muppets Take Manhatten. Although “Night Life” was originally performed by Electric Mayhem, still the greatest (and most stoned) fictional band of all time, it’s a big, dumb rock song and the version turned in by Atreyu’s Brandon Saller and Good Charlotte’s Billy Martin is noisy and grating.
You can’t really have a collection of Muppet songs that doesn’t include “The Muppet Show Theme Song,” yet the usually innovative (in their videos, anyway) Ok Go botch the job big time, turning in a stuttering, mechanical version that sounds vaguely sinister. Elsewhere, The Fray sleepwalk through a note-for-note remake of “Mahna Mahna” (really, no one thought to call Menomena for this one?).
It’s a trio of wistful songs of self-discovery that elevate this set from ignorable curiosity to essential listening. Airborne Toxic Event pitches in a driving, emotionally charged take on Gonzo’s “Wishing Song”, one of the saddest yet ultimately triumphant songs in the Muppet catalogue. ATE frontman Mike Jollett’s emotive vocals impeccably recreate Gonzo’s struggle and subsequent victory over self-pity.
There was very little chance that whatever song My Morning Jacket chose wouldn’t be an album highlight. Jim James and Co. turn the lesser known “Our World” from Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” into something that’s celestial and almost hymn-like in it’s power. As beautiful as MMJ’s performance is, it’s no match for Rachel Yamagata’s towering version of “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday”. Employing a disembodied choir, theremin, harpsichord, and weeping strings, Yamagata creates the perfect closer for an album that pays tribute to a group of characters that love their over-the-top grand finalés.
As a general rule, this type of tribute album is usually a huge waste of time; something you listen to once before filing away forever (my copy of the 1996 School House Rocks album hasn’t left the shelf since 1996). In the case of The Green Album, however, the source material is as hilarious and heartbreakingly true as the characters that originally brought it to life, a point these new readings will hopefully put across to those unfamiliar with the originals.
// Notes from the Road
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