Bad in a good and bad way

Here is Peter Conrad's review of The People's Choice Music. Peter has told me that he is going to buy this CD for everyone one he gets Christmas gifts for.

An experiment like The People's Choice Music can't help but fail, at least partially. The story is that Komar and Melamid surveyed web visitors about their musical likes and dislikes. They used the results to create one song that should theoretically be the most popular on the planet. Fortunately, they also let us hear the other shoe drop-- a song that they claim only 200 people on Earth should be able to tolerate. The CD contains only these two tracks, but oddly enough don't leave the buyer unsatisfied-- the concentration of the material is so great as to overcome its slight ratio of minutes to dollars.

The first song, "The Most Wanted Song," pokes gentle fun at the listener and at itself. At first listen, it sounds like a bland 21st-century rhythm and blues number. But the stringent requirement to include all the most popular subject matter of modern music compresses the lyrics into a tongue-in-cheek gibberish that darts madly among themes and characters. The music, too, is inclusive to the point of overload-- still, it's quite easy to listen to. I regret to say that it's growing on me.

"The Most Unwanted Song" is a monster, to be sure-- at almost 22 minutes long, it consists mainly of an operatic rap about cowboys and politics, interrupted by harp and accordion music and children singing about holidays and Wal-Mart. It took me several tries to listen to it all the way through, largely because it seemed to frighten people nearby. "The Most Unwanted Song" battles audibly to control an unruly mob of instruments and styles that clash so thrillingly that the only reaction to a first listen is a painful yelp of laughter, such as one might emit on finding oneself the sole survivor of a massacre. The soft harp that begins the piece is a cruel lure into a murky forest where tubas, banjos, bagpipes, harmonicas and accordions lurk behind every tree, jumping out and hiphopping relentlessly without warning. The tempo, melody, and style change at inopportune times, musically unbalancing the listener as much as the random shots of the man watching from a bedroom chair disturb viewers of certain movies.

In a way, "The Most Unwanted Song" fails twice. For one thing, it asks the listener to suspend the strictest definitions of the word "song." But its true failure is that it's not that bad. After losing one's cherry to a first listen, one finds it easier and easier-- some sections are downright catchy. The second and third times around, themes begin to reveal themselves-- commercialism, Americana, pluralism and diversity-- oddly enough, some of the same themes that appear in "The Most Wanted Song." During what could be called the bridge, political epithets shouted through a megaphone provide an odd climax, setting up an ending that could have come from a Broadway musical. Or perhaps an off-off-Broadway musical. Or an off-Canal-Street musical. Whatever.

The atonal sections of the piece work-- if you like atonal music, you might not find any broken ground here, but you will certainly appreciate Dave Soldier's able composition. The rap parts work comedically, but also fail to fail in one particular way-- by omitting the line "I'm so-amd-so and I'm here to say," the earmark of truly bad rap, the song accidentally takes on morsels of quality that threaten to make it popular in the rap/opera crossover markets. In fact, the rap is remarkably fly, for all its shrill Frontierland gaudiness. A few of the melodies that appear in between are downright pretty. As the saying goes, if you like accordions and tubas, you'll survive this song.

Dave Soldier fights valiantly to make the composition harsh and unpleasant, but he's just too compentent. And despite a few moments reminiscent of Jonathan and Darlene, the performers are all remarkable. The whole experience is most impressive. The fact that Komar and Melamid were actually able to get all these instruments into the same studio, with a skilled operator for each one, is so unbelievable, so marvelous, as to be nearly unforgivable.


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