Thursday, September 5, 2013

Mary Had A Little Amp, The Listener Chose No

The Good: Some decent tracks
The Bad: Some lame tracks, terrible execution of the stated concept
The Basics: Disorganized and esoteric, Mary Had A Little Amp fails to live up to its promise and offers instead a poorly executed musical experience.

I'm out. I began this month with the pledge to alternate my media reviews with non-media items and I'm out. I've no more electronics, no cars, no restaurants, no beauty products, no obscure household items left to review. Until I return from the trip I'm about to take, I'm all non-media'ed out! :( With that in mind, I sat down with a new disc that came across my desk called Mary Had A Little Amp. Every now and then as I explore a musical artist whose body of work I'm looking to review, I come across a weird citation for them. So, for example, when I hunted down the works of Liz Phair some months ago, I found her as the primary artist cited for Saturday Morning Cartoons' Greatest Hits (reviewed here!). Similarly, as I looked around for the many works of Madonna, I found Mary Had A Little Amp.

The by-line for Mary Had A Little Amp is "Music's Biggest Stars, Childhood's Greatest Songs." Because of the subjective nature of a disc that features Moby, Roseanne Cash, and Graham Nash alongside Madonna, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson and R.E.M., I'll not dispute the first part. This is a pretty impressive collection of musical artists. Where the concept fails is with the second part. For all that it is or is not, Mary Had A Little Amp is hardly "childhood's greatest songs."

I write this because I was once a child and I loved listening to music. When I picked up this disc, the only songs I knew from childhood were "Pure Imagination" (many will remember Gene Wilder singing it in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"), "The Rainbow Connection" (from "The Muppet Movie"), and "When You Wish Upon A Star" (from "Pinnoccio," I believe). Outside that, only three of the tracks were songs I had heard as an adult. Graham Nash's classic "Teach Your Children," R.E.M.'s esoteric "We Walk" (which I had only heard for the first time earlier this year on their Best of the I.R.S. years album - reviewed here!), and "Little Star" a Madonna song from her Ray Of Light c.d. Out of fourteen songs, three were covers of songs I knew from childhood and three I encountered as an adult. This is hardly "childhood's greatest songs."

Indeed, there is a distinctly un-childlike take on several of the songs. Opening with Maroon 5's version of "Pure Imagination," the listener feels more menaced than enlightened. Maroon 5 uses reverb, creepy keyboards, and stark percussion to create a "big room" feel that has an undertone of sinister to the sound of the song. It's wonderfully dark in this presentation, but hardly wonderful for children.

Similarly, I can only believe that the musings on conformity that are struck out by the Blue Man Group and Dave Matthews on "Sing Along" are included because of the singsong rhymes presented in the song. After all, lyrically, it is an innocuous song as Matthews sings "If I pretend to be strong / Will you play along" ("Sing Along") over and over again. The thing is, he sings it with the voice of The Man, crushing individuality with conformity. This has a march quality to it that is draining, foreboding, again menacing.

That's not to say the entire album is not geared toward children. The Dixie Chicks do an upbeat sounding rendition of "The Rainbow Connection" that is wonderfully articulate and fresh. With the use of the pedal steel in the song, it takes on a distinctive flavor that is less stark than when it's been presented other times. And there's nothing wrong with Bonnie Raitt and Was (Not Was) performing "Baby Mine." It's a quiet, sad tribute to love or a child and from an adult perspective it's beautiful, though likely to go over the head of preschooler (this disc was produced to benefit preschool education).

I'll admit I winced hearing the Indigo Girls making animal noises on "Wild, Wild Party In The Loquat Tree" that were reminiscent of the B-52's "Rock Lobster." It's a fine folk tune, but again, not one I'd heard before nor would consider one of childhood's greatest songs.

And some of it is just plain pointless. Madonna's "Little Star" is a rock ballad that did not stand out on Ray Of Light and doesn't blow the roof off this disc either. "We Walk" is a weird R.E.M. tune, but also far too obscure to be considered much by children. And even my favorite track on the album, Moby's "Anchovie" a techno recreation like the many Moby has made in the past, doesn't inspire the listener to turn the disc over to a child.

Ultimately, this is a hit or miss collection of singles that vary greatly in sound and quality. We have the wonderful folk melody "Teach Your Children" which closes the album which has the utterly unmemorable "Gentle Breeze" (performed by Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson). You have Madonna's pure pop following on the Dixie Chick's country-slanted classic. The best songs reinterpret classics (like Maroon 5's creepy "Pure Imagination"), the lesser songs seem to simply be songs culled from artists that have singsong lyrics.

Indeed, checking out the liner notes, most of these songs (judging by the copyright dates) are available elsewhere. I'm not knocking the concept of either famous artists presenting childhood songs or a benefit to raise money for preschool education. The problem here is this mix. It's completely inconsistent. It is mixing recognizable songs from childhood (like "When You Wish Upon A Star") with (apparently) whatever work an artist was willing to donate to the cause (like Madonna's "Little Star") with songs that don't really relate to children ("Sing Along").

A good mix that has a theme comes together, this one does not. While it may have various styles on it: from country to techno, pop to folk, rock and roll to classical, the arrangement has to flow, one song to another in a way that makes the album come together. This does not. Cover song abuts quirky original work, folk follows folk follows folk, it's not well assembled.

Because some of these tracks may not be available elsewhere, die hard fans might have to pick this up. As a service, this is what the disc contains:
"Pure Imagination" - Maroon 5
"We Walk" - R.E.M.
"The Rainbow Connection" - Dixie Chicks
"Little Star" - Madonna
"Sing Along" - Blue Man Group featuring Dave Matthews
"Baby Mine" - Bonnie Raitt & Was (Not Was)
"The 3 R's" - Jack Johnson (it's a recycling jingle!)
"Anchovie" - Moby
"Life Line" - Nancy and Ann Wilson with the Brian Wilson Band
"Gentle Breeze" - Lou Reed & Laurie Anderson
"Wild, Wild Party In The Loquat Tree" - Indigo Girls
"How To Be Strong" - Roseanne Cash
"When You Wish Upon A Star" - Joe Henry
"Teach Your Children" - Graham Nash

Unfortunately, this disc does not execute what it promises and even without its stated purpose, it does not hold together as a meaningful musical collection. The best track is "Anchovie," the weakest part song is "Gentle Breeze."

For other compilation albums, please visit my reviews of:
Millennium ‘80’s New Wave Party - Various Artists
An Inconvenient Truth Soundtrack
Where Have All The Flowers Gone?: The Music Of Pete Seeger - Various Artists


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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