What Is It? – A new tribute album featuring such hip-and-happening acts as OK Go, Weezer, Hayley Williams of Paramore, My Morning Jacket, Andrew Bird and The Fray scratching their nostalgia itch by paying their respects to the Great Muppet Songbook.
In the world of pop culture, no group of vaudvillian misfits deserves a rousing comeback more than the once-mighty Muppets. Badly mishandled in the twenty years since creator and all-around genius Jim Henson’s death, Kermit and the gang have sunk into a sort of sad popularity limbo — one where you can still technically call them beloved, but only with the realization that they are beloved only as a still-breathing relic of a time past. Kermit lives on at Disney, on YouTube and in the occasional television special or errant performance, but in reality, it seems his effervescent, boundless, inspiring spirit died along with his kindly bearded creator.
The Muppets were big. They touched kids and adults alike, they hob-nobbed with the biggest stars of the ’70s and ’80s, they were huge crossover successes. They could essentially do no wrong. Even in a mediocre movie like The Muppets Take Manhattan (which I pretty much panned on this blog two months ago), the Muppets shine, filling up the screen with good-humor and an irrepressible nobility. The humans on the screen, well, they can’t keep up.
Today it is the Muppets who seem out-of-pace with the times. Their schtick — the sad-sack, can’t-connect-with-an-audience, heckled, incompetent losers act — well it’s hardly an act anymore. The Muppets handlers still seem to be able to come up with genius ways to use the characters (Exhibit A), but none of it, particularly the bad stuff (Exhibit Z…) is transferring intoanthing other than “Hey, it’s them again!” recognition from older audiences, and “Huh, who?” indifference from the younger crowd.
Me, I grew up during the horrible Muppets drought of the late-’90s. What Muppets movie did I get to see in theaters? Muppets in Space! Yeah, thanks for that. I don’t know where my propensity for the Muppets comes from. I can’t have seen that much of them to be honest. No Muppet Show, no Muppet Babies, some of the movies, the ride at Walt Disney World a bunch of times… And yet… I’ve latched onto Kermit, Gonzo and Fozzie like beloved pals, for no apperent reason other than, well, I love them. I love their can-do spirit and I love their can’t-actually-do mishaps and I really love the songs they sing — good old -fashioned Tin Pan Alley can-do melodies and heart-breaking “I want more!” ballads and funky Electric Mayhem jams.
In high school, I tried to arrange the Muppet Show theme song for my marching band to play in the stands. I spent months on it. It was the first thing I ever tried when I excersized my muscle on Finale, oh it must been Finale Notepad 2005. I thought it was great. Apperently it wasn’t, but, like Fozzie, a little negative feedback never stops me! That being said, the songs on this album are much better then my sad attempt to arrange a Muppets classic for clarinets and piccolos. As a matter of fact, this enitre album is great. No one does a bad Kermit imitation, but the musicians on this album do channel the sort of innocent, loose, conversational attitude of the Muppet Songbook. The joyful novelty tunes are jaunty and limber; the heart-breaking ballads are all suitably somber and tear-jerking. There’s not an unlistenable clunker in the bunch — which is partially attributable to the undeniable strength of the durable material, and is also partially attributable to the clear affection of the artist’s doing performing covers. Ultimately, the album is a great listen all the way through, and it gives one hope that a new generation of artists is ready to take on the Muppets in a fresh way — not the way Jim Henson already did, but in a way an innovator and great comedian and entertainer like Henson would have approved of. Considering this album is essentially publicity for an upcoming brand-spanking new, “We’re getting the gang back together,” Muppet movie, I guess it can be said that someone is doing their job over at the revitalized Muppet Studios. Jason Segal and Brett Mckenzie, all eyes are on you now.