Bacharach Bonanza

What the World Needs Now...

Feel like you'll throttle Dionne Warwick's scrawny little neck if you hear her version of "I Say a Little Prayer" one more time? Don't throw Burt out with the bath water. Here are loads of Bacharach covers: some idyllic, some idiosyncratic, some idiotic, but none boring.

The postpubescent bands on What the World Needs Now . . . Big Deal Recording Artists Perform the Songs of Burt Bacharach(Big Deal records) probably heard Bacharach on their parents' discarded eight-tracks. Shonen Knife charmingly fumbles through enunciation of the lyrics to "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," while Splitsville sneers through a witty arrangement of "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." Dan Kibler's power-chording on "Trains and Boats and Planes" is 180 degrees opposite of Wondermints' loungey take of "Don't Go Breaking My Heart." These impressively diverse youngbloods never whitewash Bacharach's emphasis on the desperate head games of romance.

Backin thuhday, vibist Cal Tjader and saxophonist Stan Getz both recorded tributes to the silver-haired one. When not courting their jazz followings, both cashed in on seducing a pop audience too old for hippiedom but too young for Muzak. The musical prostitution was formulaic: Songs were limited to two or three minutes and the improvisation minimal. Cal Tjader Sounds Out Burt Bacharach, recorded in 1968, lays the vibes over the era's typical -- and typically excremental -- penchant for mixing corny '60s electric guitar with an outdated '50s horn section. Getz's What the World Needs Now: Stan Getz Plays Bacharach and David is far meatier, thanks to the prismatic arrangements of Claus Ogerman. Despite the doofus bongos and occasional ooh-wah vocal chorus in the background, the album still draws blood.

Though wild man saxophonist/composer John Zorn is a jazz favorite of the serial killer crowd, he's remained devoted to the softer stuff from his youth. In 1997, his Tzadik label releasedGreat Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach, two CDs of freakishly talented players affectionately assaulting the likes of "Wives and Lovers." Medeski, Martin & Wood's take of "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" sounds like the band was inspired by a case of cough syrup; Mike Patton's "She's Gone Away" becomes a sci-fi soap opera score; Sean Lennon and Uka Honda zombie-karaoke their way through "The Look of Love" -- who'd have thought Bacharach's music could sound this creepy, and available in so many nasty shades, no less. And stretching your entertainment dollar: Name-that-tune stumper of all time has to be Joey Baron's drum solo version of "Alfie."

Bill Frisell's trademark fretted wooziness has catapulted jazz guitar so far beyond the last 40 years of clichéd bebop licks that he sometimes defies association with anything this side of Roswell, New Mexico. But he's a fool for a melody, as proven by his very unjazzlike choice of Stephen Foster, Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters tunes for his albums. Not surprisingly, then, he's a fan of both Elvis Costello (with whom he recorded 1995's seldom-heard Deep Dead Blue) and the Burt-man himself. Frisell's The Sweetest Punch: The New Songs of Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach (Decca) is, oddly, an impressive song-by-song remake of Costello and Bacharach's entire Painted From Memory album, recorded a year earlier, in 1998. Costello shows up alongside a buffet of jazzers including vocalist Cassandra Wilson, clarinetist Don Byron and pianist Brian Blade.

That's New Pussycat! Surf Tribute to Burt Bacharach(Omom Music) was compiled by the head of the Italian surf band the Cosmonauts, Robert Ruggeri, whose struggling English liner notes claim that Bacharach's music "teased my fantasy." The load of surf bands represented (Squid Vicious, Fabulous Planktones, Mummy the Peepshow) proves that the melodic themes twanged out by lone surf guitars in the '60s were only a step short of whammy-barring their way through more evolved anthems like "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and "The Look of Love." How to account for Bacharach stretching all the way to the beach? Though the gifted child of New York's Brill Building empire of composers, he extricated himself from its urban claustrophobia by composing Hollywood soundtracks, using Western and Latin textures regularly tapped by both the silver screen and surfers with Stratocasters. In fact, a young Bacharach's theme for The Blob, the 1958 movie's gratuitous teen dance number here resuscitated by the Aqualads, damn near sounds like it was written for a surf band -- though the genre would not surface for another three years.

No doubt in the works as this is being written: Pearls and Swine: William Shatner Bellows Burt Bacharach.

 
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