By Elizabeth Keenan
The music of the Muppets gave those of us who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s a soundtrack that could be earnest, heartwarming, completely silly, optimistic, wistful, or all of those things at the same time. The Muppets: The Green Album brings together indie rock and rock musicians to cover 11 of the Muppets’ most recognizable songs in a lead-up to the release of the new Muppet Movie in November.
The album fits well in the grand tradition of the Muppets’ connections with real-world pop culture. Musical guests–from Johnny Cash to Blondie’s Debbie Harry to Alice Cooper to Liberace–frequented The Muppet Show, where they dropped the poses of adulthood. The covers on The Green Album reflect this spirit of plucky Muppet fun, devoid of any of the more cynical elements of nostalgia.
The best tracks on the album offer something other than a straightforward recreation of the Muppets’ songs. OK Go kicks off the album with “The Muppet Show Theme Song,” a quirky and groovy interpretation, filled with fuzzy distortion and laden with vocal reverb. It’s a spunky and creative way to introduce the album.
My Morning Jacket’s “Our World” steps outside the Muppet Show to bring in a country-inflected track from Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas (1977). Banjo, slide guitar, and sparse percussion create a haunting atmosphere for the song’s earnest message: “Love can open your eyes/in our world.” In a less well-crafted arrangement, the lyrics could seem cheesy, but My Morning Jacket succeeds in bringing out their poignancy.
Similarly, Andrew Bird’s “Bein’ Green” reflects the singer’s country-influenced style, with haunting fiddle, whistling solos, and brush-stroke drums. Bird’s arrangement may not feature Kermit the Frog, but it builds with intensity as the song progresses. It may not be easy being green, but Bird makes green beautiful.
On the funny end of the Muppet spectrum, The Fray’s delivery of nonsense lyrics of “Mahna Mahna” never quite reaches the absurdity of Mahna Mahna’s unfettered scatting in the classic Muppet skit, which debuted in 1969 on the Ed Sullivan Show. But the Fray’s choice of instrumentation–piano, handclaps and cleanly recorded drums–plus the band’s spirited renditions of the Snowths’ “Do doo, do doo doo” add up to the most fun of the album.
Brandon Saller’s “Night Life” bears the signature of metal–but not exactly the style of Saller’s band Atreyu. The song lands more in David Lee Roth-era Van Halen territory, with belted vocals and guitar noodling and a solid brick wall of a drum solo. In contrast to the earnestness of much of the rest of the album, the song bathes in the sillier, over-the-top aspects of the Muppets.
Other songs fall more predictably within an artists’ style, and, depending on the listener’s interest in a particular musician, could inspire love or hate. Alkaline Trio’s “Movin’ Right Along,” from 1979’s The Muppet Movie, stays faithful to the song and to their own pop-punk style almost to the point of limitation. Ditto with Airborne Toxic Event’s “Wishing Song.”
At times, the dedication to Muppet earnestness overwhelms the music. Weezer, which has its own “Green Album,” appropriately appears here, covering “Rainbow Connection” with a little help from Paramore’s Hayley Williams. The song suffers from a dirge-like tempo that smothers the optimistic tone of the original. And the succession of Andrew Bird’s “Bein’ Green,” Matt Nathanson’s piano-centric “I Hope that Something Better Comes Along,” and Rachael Yamagata’s touching “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday,” weighs the tail end of the album toward the sentimental. While each of these tracks stands on its own, the positioning of them together draws the album to a downer of a close.
The Green Album will be released on August 23, 2011.