Tribute albums come in all shapes and sizes. You have the good-but-shouldn’t-be (‘Dragon Attack’ – a metal tribute to Queen, worth hearing for Lemmy rasping his way through ‘Tie Your Mother Down’); the brilliant (‘Working Class Hero’ – a tribute to John Lennon, containing rare and unreleased tracks by Blues Traveler and Screaming Trees, among others); and sometimes you’re faced with the unashamedly awful (‘Sin-atra’). Occasionally, you get one that screams novelty (as was the case with ‘Saturday Morning’, featuring punk and alternative bands performing cartoon themes; and even that contains some real genius – everybody should hear Sublime giving ‘Hong Kong Phooey’ the reggae treatment).
As an alternative rock tribute to songs associated with The Muppets, ‘The Green Album’ should fall squarely into the novelty category, but most of this release holds up on its own merits. Let’s face it, the songs featured in The Muppet Show (and the various Muppet films) are well written pieces of pop, and even with an alternative kick up the arse, they still sound like well written songs.
The gorgeous ‘Rainbow Connection’ (written by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher) is given a suitably respectful airing. Played in a duet between Weezer and Paramore’s Hayley Williams, the arrangement is soft at first, with acoustic guitars, keyboard strings and occasional tinkling harps. River’s Cuomo’s vocal performance captures the right level of innocence, but he’s no match for Williams who takes the song and pulls the best from every note. Eventually, she almost drowns out Cuomo’s voice in the process, especially once the drums kick in. Since Weezer’s post 2001 output is often so half-baked, you’ll be so thankful they didn’t screw this up. In contrast comes Evenescence vocalist Amy Lee’s reimagining of ‘Halfway Up The Stairs’. The vocal melody remains firmly intact – and Lee’s voice is strong – but musically, it’s a bit of a clanger. This once nursery rhyme has been deconstructed and rebuilt as a collection of semi-industrial beats and loops. You can see what she was aiming for here, but it could have been handled much better. Also filling out the quota for “edgy” is a metal version of ‘Night Life’ (from The Great Muppet Caper), performed by Atreyu’s Brandon Saller and Billy Martin of Good Charlotte. The guitars come with plenty of crunch and Saller hams it up slightly, which only adds to the fun. Throw in some rather loud drums and you have a winning combination.
As one of the key songs in The Muppet Movie, the original ‘Movin’ Right Along’ is a banjo and piano affair – distinctly the work of Paul Williams, not too dissimilar to something from Bugsy Malone. That jaunty nature is tailor-made for Alkaline Trio’s punk-pop rendition, featuring strong vocals and playing throughout. The band makes it their own, while never losing sight of the original musical blueprint (Amy Lee, take note). There’s even a hint of rinky-dinky piano left in on occasion to tip the hat further to the original 1979 Muppet take. With a sparse arrangement, Andrew Bird’s ‘Being Green’ is lovely, pitching his soft vocal against plucked and bowed violin, brushed drums and acoustic guitar. There’s little else to say, but if you were a fan of Bird’s work before, chances are you’ll find this to be an essential collection filler, even though it’s still not quite up there with Van Morrison’s 1973 cover [that version likely recorded as a statement on Irish troubles, as opposed to being a frog].
Not one of the better Muppet songs, ‘Our World’ (featured in the lesser known 1977 special Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas) was originally too twee for its own good. In the hands of My Morning Jacket it gets improved no end, with choirs of voices and extensive use of banjo. The original twee style is still there in part, but its gentle nature is perfectly suited to Jim James’s vocal range. Norwegian singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche puts his mark on the 1963 composition ‘Mr Bassman’ (featured in a 1976 episode of The Muppet Show). It’s likely you’ve heard other versions of this number, and Lerche’s version doesn’t differ too much, aside from the addition of some guitar reverb. It’s an annoying song at best, and is one of ‘The Green Album’s more likely to get skipped.
The only tracks featured on ‘The Green Album’ which come across as novelty are the two pieces which were rather more disposable to begin with. OK Go’s reimagining of ‘The Muppet Show Theme’ comes fully equipped with an electronic groove. Hearing the choir of voices sing the oh-so familiar theme against some hefty beats at first can be slightly unnerving, but once you settle into the style, it’s quite fun. The best moments are provided by a carny style keyboard and fuzzy guitar solo. That brings us onto the other throwaway number: ‘Mahna Mahna’. Of course, like ‘Mr Bassman’, this isn’t strictly speaking a Muppet song, but most people think of it as such, so it belongs here. Compared to the likes of ‘Rainbow Connection’, ‘Being Green’ and ‘Movin’ Right Along’, ‘Mahna Mahna’ certainly represents the short straw in terms of song writing brilliance. Despite the fact they know it’s silly, The Fray turn in a more than creditable performance of this 1968 Piero Umilani number, complete with tack piano, harmony voices and – most importantly – growling vocals which would make Jim Henson smile.
Although it has a relatively short playing time at just over 36 minutes, ‘The Green Album’ is often an exercise in quality over quantity, since against the odds, most of these cover versions work rather well. More surprisingly, the re-workings of these songs stand up to repeated listens. With so many great artists featured and some enjoyable takes on a few old Muppet favourites (with Weezer/Williams and Andrew Bird making gold standard) ‘The Green Album’ is a very worthwhile purchase. Wocka wocka wocka!