Postmodern Jukebox is a labor of love for creator Scott Bradlee. In just a few short years, the concept has grown from a viral sensation to a full-blown, worldwide phenomenon. Part reality show, a la The Voice, part old-school jukebox, and part iPhone or Spotify song shuffle, the project’s premise is to basically throw things to the wall to see what sticks. What started as a labor of love for the jazz musician, music director, and theater enthusiast, quickly turned into a booming and lucrative career.
As he started reworking popular music into different stylings and uploading the results to YouTube, the people started noticing. Backing musicians joined the fray, promoters and labels took notice, and the views kept coming. Some 740 million YouTube views, multiple iTunes chart-topping releases, and feature stories on national broadcasts later, Bradlee and the Postmodern Jukebox (best known as PMJ) are back with their second full-length release, The Essentials II.
What sticks? Well, that depends on the stylistic leanings of the listener. Though all the numbers are shrouded in vintage glam, they all bear distinct differences.
Things that work: Former American Idol contestant Casey Abrams turns early ’90s gem, “What Is Love” into a hyped-up, retro-leaning swing number. Hailey Reinhart squeezing every note from her soaring voice as she maneuvers Chris Cornell’s “Black Hole Sun” into something almost operatic. Hanson’s infectiously cheesy anthem, “MMMBop” turned into a doo-wop ditty courtesy of the synced voices provided by Kenton Chen, Mario Jose, Luke Edgemon, and Matt Bloyd. Maiya Sykes taking the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” to an unrecognizably pleasing scat-infused declaration of joy. And, Nicole Atkins’ haunting vocals on Bowie’s “Heroes”, a cover version that despite sitting right in Atkins’ wheelhouse, is undeniably knocked out of the park.
Elsewhere, there are some tracks that might demand a skip over. But, like previously stated, it all depends on the style one digs. Jennie Lena’s re-working of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”, Wayne Brady’s attention-starved fumbling of “Thriller”, and Morgan James’ overblown rendering of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” would fall into the skip category, should we be inclined to keep score.
Of course, it’s asking a lot for a tribute album or compilation to be nearly perfect. That’s one reason why projects like this one exist. The goal is to provide something for everybody and drive a conversation. Here, one listener’s trash can be another’s treasure. Arguing over which is which over repeated listens is half the fun, and likely a recreational pursuit that Bradlee may have had in mind when putting this whole thing together.
Listening to this album can also inspire some crate-digging, or in the modern sense of things, some Google searching. Until you hear then reimagined, it’s easy to forget some of the earworms that previously took up headspace. Hearing Swedish trumpeter Gunhild Carling whirl her way through “The Final Countdown” will spark the realization that the song was once more than just a prop to fire up hockey fans during an important face-off. It may just be enough to get you to look up hair-metal enthusiasts Europe’s original 1986 version. With 18 tracks, this archival exercise can be a fun way to spend a lazy afternoon or evening.
The success of this project makes it likely that listeners will be treated with further compilations and tours. It will be interesting to see what names jump on board to participate, which tracks make the final cuts for inclusion, and which genres are given priority. With an eye for entertainment and an ear for consumer preference, Bradlee will surely come up with another stellar collection.