Some­thing (Not Quite) Fa­mil­iar

Groups add fresh twist to fa­mous hits

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - ROGERS - JO­CE­LYN MUR­PHY

Aug. 6 prom­ises a night of mu­sic to Northwest Arkansas un­like any­thing the Wal­mart Arkansas Mu­sic Pavil­ion has hosted be­fore: a show of co-head­lin­ing per­form­ers tak­ing to­day’s pop­u­lar hits and turn­ing them on their heads.

Straight No Chaser is the all-men a capella group from In­di­ana with six al­bums, four EPs and more than a decade singing to­gether. And Post­mod­ern Juke­box is a col­lec­tive of more than 50 mu­si­cians tak­ing YouTube by storm with their vin­tage restylings of con­tem­po­rary hits. Some of their most pop­u­lar videos in­clude a ’50s doo wop ver­sion of Mi­ley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop,” Lady Gaga’s “Bad Ro­mance” in 1920s Gatsby style and a vin­tage blue­grass/ barn dance cover of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”

“You can push the lim­its pretty far in terms of chang­ing the source ma­te­rial and still have it re­tain the el­e­ments of the song it is,” says Scott Bradlee, creator of Post­mod­ern Juke­box.

“It’s ac­tu­ally pretty fun when you’re lis­ten­ing and you’re like, ‘Wait, what is this song? How do I know this song?’ And then there’s that light­bulb mo­ment where you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, OK, of course, they’re play­ing Weezer, but it’s done in jazz.’”

A jazz pi­anist hav­ing trou­ble find­ing work, Bradlee started putting videos on YouTube not ex­pect­ing any­thing to come of it. The video that set him on the path to Post­mod­ern Juke­box was a col­lec­tion of ’80s songs played in the style of rag­time. When the video kept rak­ing in views — hun­dreds of thou­sands — the thought oc­curred to Bradlee: “There’s some­thing here. There’s some­thing that’s in­ter­est­ing to peo­ple [in] hear­ing these fa­mil­iar songs played in a very un­fa­mil­iar way.”

A thread of trial-and-er­ror pro­jects (in­clud­ing the suc­cess­ful Mo­town trib­ute to Nick­el­back), con­vinc­ing mu­si­cian friends to help film videos in his liv­ing room, a few years and more than 650 mil­lion YouTube views later, Post­mod­ern Juke­box is a global project.

“Ob­vi­ously, we’ve al­ways been aware of kind of the hu­mor that is in tak­ing some­thing that seems so di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed to the styles that we’re cov­er­ing, but even from the early days, I never wanted it to come off as par­ody,” Bradlee shares. “I think par­ody kind of has a shelf life; it doesn’t al­low for a full range of ex­pres­sion. So I ap­proach ev­ery song, whether it’s Nick­el­back or Kanye West or what­ever, and re­ally ex­am­ine [it] and fig­ure out how would these songs sound back in the 1920s or the swing era, and do it au­then­ti­cally and hon­estly.”

For any who may be skep­ti­cal of jazz or the big band style, Bradlee as­sures his di­verse and bal­anced cast — “It’s not just peo­ple singing jazz; there’s amaz­ing soul singers, there’s peo­ple who have this kind of comedic as­pect to what they do, an in­cred­i­ble tap dancer” — and the char­ac­ter of the mu­sic will still draw them in.

“A lot of peo­ple who aren’t ac­cus­tomed to those ear­lier styles, it’s mostly be­cause they don’t know the ma­te­rial. I think most of us would go see Frank Si­na­tra live if we got the chance, even if we didn’t know the songs,” he muses. “There’s some­thing that’s a time­less qual­ity about that kind of mu­sic. And you know, it’s an ex­pe­ri­ence. I would say we ease peo­ple in be­cause you’re go­ing to know the songs we’re play­ing; they’re some of the big­gest hits in the world.”


“What’s cool about Straight No Chaser is they do a very sim­i­lar thing in the sense that they’re tak­ing fa­mil­iar ma­te­rial and twist­ing it into a new con­text,” says Post­mod­ern Juke­box creator Scott Bradlee (cen­ter). “It’s a very en­ter­tain­ing show, and it has that kind of up­beat at­mos­phere that matches ours very well. You’re go­ing to see two great acts that are do­ing re­ally cre­ative stuff and keep­ing the au­di­ence en­gaged through­out. It’s def­i­nitely feel-good en­ter­tain­ment.”

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