Album Reviews

Paul Anka – Rock Swings

(Verve) UK release date: 3 October 2005

Paul Anka is a scary man. Just look at him – his face stares out from the cover of his latest album with evil, conspiratorial intent. This is a man who is surely just steps away from being recruited to play Jack Bauer’s latest nemesis in the next season of 24 – and his plan to wipe out the heart of the free world is a corker. Check this out:

Evil terrorists and corrupt government officials have discovered that the greatest threat to their preferred world order is the liberal-minded bunch of people who’ve grown up listening to pop and rock music in the 80s and 90s. This music has given them independence, and made them question the status quo that, during the peak of the Cold War, they had taken for granted. Now they think they can question what they’re told and, God forbid, try to change things.

So a dastardly plot was hatched. If Anka could just make all these young rock fans believe that their favourite original songs were in fact just covers of old 50s big band classics, they may give up trying new things and bring back the balance. Rumours had it that some post-modern types such as Richard Cheese had been doing this for laughs already, so to be convincing the mission needed to be played dead straight. Scarily straight. Until the listener begins to doubt their own memories…

Frightening, isn’t it? Wait till you hear it. With or without sinister intent, Paul Anka has brought us an hour of big band swing versions of a whole host of unlikely songs from the past two decades. The source material includes Soundgarden, Van Halen, Nirvana, REM, even Spandau Ballet, and the biggest surprise is not that it works, but which songs really work.

Anka has largely avoided the trap Richard Cheese fell into and chosen only songs with defined vocal melodies, and while the vocal melody and lyrics are recognisable the arrangers have taken free rein with the instrumental score. Only Van Halen’s Jump is immediately recognisable – you can’t miss that horn riff – but if you can keep your eyes away from the sleeve notes there’s plenty of fun to be had guessing the songs.

Everything you expect from a classic jazz orchestra is here: smooth saxes and clarinets singing along while horns scream out over a waterfall of tinkly piano in the background. The horn stabs actually spoil REM’s Everybody Hurts, a song that could be done really beautifully with an orchestra, as the arrangement isn’t subtle enough to do the song justice. The potential for quiet beauty is instead displayed best on Black Hole Sun scarily transformed into the perfect soundtrack to an autumnal stroll through Central Park.

Favourite tracks will depend a bit on how you feel about the originals. Wonderwall, for instance, is one of this reviewer’s most hated songs, and while Anka makes it surprisingly bearable, I’m still tempted to skip it. Oasis fans, however, can rest assured that he’s done Noel proud.

There can be little doubt, though, as to which track above all others sounds like it was made for Paul Anka’s treatment, and it’s a frightening revelation. It’s here that the Anka conspiracy succeeds. No matter how much you remind yourself that Smells Like Teen Spirit was written in the 90s, not the 50s, the brain just can’t accept it any more. Despite its undisputed status as an alternative classic, this version is simply better. Now that’s scary.

So there you go. Simply by playing it straight and approaching his material with total reverence, Paul Anka has made an album that will change the way you think about some of our most famous songs forever. Enter – but at your own risk.

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Paul Anka – Rock Swings