Saturday, September 04, 2004


As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
September 3, 2004

Remember how in the early ’90s some music-marketing geniuses tried to promote Johnny Cash and Tony Bennett as “alternative-rock” stars? It wasn’t a totally wrongheaded ploy in either case — mainly because both artists kept true to their respective art.

Today there’s a hot “new” star from the days of yesteryear for the electronica crowd: Lawrence Welk. I’m not kidding.

Upstairs at Larry’s: Lawrence Welk Uncorked is a compilation of DJ/techno/dance/electronica remixes of favorite (well, somebody’s favorite) Lawrence Welk tunes.

In case you never got hip to the Lawrence trip, Welk was a North Dakota-born band leader who died in 1992 at the age of 89. The son of Alsatian immigrants, Welk didn’t speak English until he was 21 years old. His dense German accent and smiling countenance became ingrained in the popular consciousness beginning in the mid-1950s when his weekly television show debuted. The show aired on ABC until 1971, then went to syndication until the early ’80s.

The Lawrence Welk Orchestra’s basic sound was soft, safe and sanitized — lots of clarinet, accordion and syrupy, young-Caucasian vocals. Saxophones with no trace of Charlie Parker grit. And if Lawrence approved of a performance, he’d respond at the end of the song with a hearty “wunnerful, wunnerful, wunnerful!”

Welk was known as a puritan. He once fired a female singer for showing “too much knee” on TV. But Welk’s sound had a hedonistic side. Just like the Grateful Dead will always be linked with LSD, and Bob Marley’s music is synonymous with ganja, Welk’s music is forever associated with a certain intoxicant: champagne.

Welk’s heirs own Vanguard, that respected folk-music label, which normally doesn’t release stuff sounding remotely like techno — or Lawrence Welk, for that matter. And I’m a huge fan of neither techno nor Welk. I’m completely unfamiliar with the remix artists who mutated the champagne music. But this album is so surreal and so much goofy fun, it won me over.

My favorites here are “You Can Dance,” done by Q-Burns Abstract Message. I’m not sure who the vocalist is — one of the Lennon Sisters perhaps? — whose line, “You can dance with any girl at all,” is repeated robotically throughout the tune.

“Let it Be Me” — yes, the ballad recorded by Jerry Butler and Betty Everett, the Everly Brothers and many others — is made into something dark and sinister by Magic Elephant Orchestra.

But perhaps best of all is the remix of “You Are My Sunshine” by Joy & the Spider. It sounds like a love song for androids. I’m not sure if the late Gov. Jimmy Davis would recognize this version of his signature song, but with its sped-up vocals (one singer sounds like Bryan Ferry), it’s a creepy joy.

Some minor complaints: there didn’t have to be two versions of essentially the same song, “Baby Elephant Walk,” a Henry Mancini ditty from the soundtrack of Hatari, an early-’60s John Wayne movie. I’m not sure which version I prefer here, the one by Monkey Bars or the one by DJ Keri and DJ 43, which they’ve tweaked to call “Baby Elephant Safari.”

Also, David Lynch was so successful in filling the song “Blue Velvet” with dread and horror in his 1986 movie of the same name — sung there by actress Isabella Rossellini without the benefit of technological tricks of a DJ remix — that Smitty’s best efforts were doomed to sound second-rate.

Though it’s a novelty album to be sure, Upstairs at Larry’s is a bubbly pleasure. All in all, it’s wunnerful, wunnerful, wunnerful.

Also recommended

Ride This by Los Lobos.
I was pretty disappointed with Los Lobos’ most recent proper album, The Ride. I felt it was one of those overrun-by-guest-stars affairs; it had too many remakes of old Lobos tunes, and a good number of those remakes were less than impressive.

But now, just a couple of months later, the band comes out with this fine little seven-song EP in which they cover songs by some of those guest stars on The Ride.

They bring out the just-beneath-the-surface Latin overtones of Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” while maintaining the knowing-hipster attitude of the “Rain Dogs” tune. Cesar Rosas sounds like he was born at Stax Studio on Bobby Womack’s “More Than I Can Stand.”

Their version of “Shoot Out the Lights” sounds similar to Bob Mould’s take on the song in the early ’90s, with screaming guitars and knuckle-sandwich drums. It’s as tough as Louie Perez’s singing on RubĂ©n Blades’ “Patria” is beautiful.

With the roller-rinky organ and jazzy guitars of Thee Midnighters’ “It’ll Never Be Over For Me,” Los Lobos captures the rock sound of East L.A. in the ’60s. They do the same thing for the L.A. roots-rock scene of the early ’80s — the scene that launched Los Lobos — with their cover of the Blasters’ “Marie Marie.”

But perhaps the thing that makes Ride This more satisfying than The Ride is that Los Lobos, especially singer David Hidalgo, does Elvis Costello’s “Uncomplicated” so much better here than Elvis Costello did Los Lobos’ “Matter of Time” on The Ride. They do the song as a slow-burning, growling-guitar boogie, and Hidalgo sings it with understated soul.

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