Poppin' Guitars : A Tuneful Of Sherman
The music of The Sherman Brothers who are beloved worldwide for writing the songs for Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Winnie the Pooh as well as songs for Disneyland and hits for artists like Ringo Starr are given arrangements by the worlds greatest acoustic guitarists! From the opening track featuring Australian Tommy Emmanuel's playful Winnie the Pooh , to Greg Hawkes (from THE CARS) version of You're Sixteen and Laurence Juber's A Spoonful of Sugar new treatments of old favorites will guarantee a jolly holiday for all who give a listen!
This Supercalifragilistic Album is something I'll treasure forever --Richard M Sherman
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The Sherman Brothers' songs delighted me as a child -- let's face it, their songs were a very atmospheric element in their films. The up-tempo songs had an energetic buzz that added to the excitement and fun of whatever scene they were in, and the ballads added emotions that the scripts could not have conveyed alone. Hell, the music in "Mary Poppins" is decidedly American in its strength, clarity, and angular construction, but it FEELS British in the film. Anyway, as I forged my way in a music career, I've increasingly been impressed with how UNsimple the Sherman Brothers' music is -- there are many layers harmonically and a ton of subtlety in what the melodies and the chord structures do. It all adds up to songs that are simultaneously vivid and relaxed -- the song knows precisely where it is going, and would love to have you join it on its journey.
And now to this magnificent recording.
I am not a big fan of solo guitar music. What I mean is that the guitar is a lovely instrument, but my ear wearies of it after a short while. I think it may have something to do with most players not presenting a very wide pitch spectrum within an individual song -- a solo pianist can literally cover seven octaves in the course of a few seconds, but few guitarists make the extra effort needed to scale the heights and depths of the guitar's range. So, the only thing that will hold my attention when listening to a solo guitarist is interesting playing -- either the actual written composition has to be something so strongly constructed that it grabs my attention, or a new arrangement of familiar music has to be extraordinarily engaging. Without one of those factors, I start dozing off after three minutes.
Well, I'm happy to report that I stayed quite awake through this entire recording.
I have to admit that I just did not expect the outstanding variety of playing that is heard on this CD. It strikes me as kind of amazing that there is no "Arranged by" credit -- in other words, I assume that each guitarist devised his own arrangement. The liner notes give thanks to several people at the Disney organization, and I presume that part of that involved them loaning the original film arrangements [and/or recordings] for the guitarists to peruse, since several appealing instrumental lines from the film orchestrations were borrowed by some of these guitarists. Like the old saying goes, "if you're going to steal, steal from the best." Anyway, because each player brings his own tastes and artistry [and playing techniques] to his assigned song, no two songs have the same acoustic "feel" -- I suspect that if this recording featured only one guitarist doing these songs, dreariness might have threatened to encroach after awhile.
But perhaps the highest praise I can give, in light of my earlier note about not usually being terribly keen on solo guitar music, is that after playing this CD from start to finish, I had a bite to eat and then listened to it again twice -- all the way through. That was yesterday, and I'm listening to it again as I write this.
There is only one thing I can quibble with, and this is entirely about my personal preference -- some of the songs lack a strong lower "bass" presence. For me, the charm of the songs' original orchestrations in the films was their strong and vibrant bass lines that grounded their sound terrifically. It sounds like several of these guitarists overdubbed themselves, because their selections indeed have a wider range that just has a fuller sound. The players who did not do that still present the songs' rich harmonic structure very appealingly, but just don't have the range I would have preferred. I guess this is really more about my preferences, not these players' artistry.
If you're interested, below are a few impressions about each song. If you stop reading here, I hope you'll give this charming disc a spin.
#1 "Winnie the Pooh" [Tommy Emmanuel]: Lovely melancholy intro with block chords. Plays the first chorus with fast strumming for a mandolin effect. Does the intro verse's music ["Down in the Hundred Acre Wood"] as a slightly extended bridge, followed by a few reiterations of the chorus in varying styles. A far more engaging version than I thought possible.
#2 A Spoonful of Sugar" [Laurence Juber]: Nice variety in the arrangement, and Mr. Juber has an infectious enthusiasm for this song. Most impressive moment -- in the middle portion, he does the chorus melody WHILE playing [in the upper range] the delightful rapid Sousa-esque piccolo obbligato heard in the film's version. I mentioned possible overdubbing before, but he's just playing one time through -- and he's all up and down the guitar on this song.
#3 "Hushabye Mountain" [Al Petteway]: Gorgeous, simple, and with very appealing chord variations. This is one of my favorite Sherman Brothers songs -- it has both a wistful quality and an expansive passionate feel. Grab a glass of wine and enjoy this track at 2:00am with the lights low [tissues optional].
#4 "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" [Kenny Sultan]: I wish he had played the melody a bit stronger; the off-beats of the accompaniment bury it many times. I'm not sure if someone unfamiliar with the old Disneyland ride "Carousel of Progress" would actually know what the melody was. Some nice quick-fingered work in the variation sections, though.
#5 "You're Sixteen" [Greg Hawkes]: If you told me years ago that the Cars' keyboardist would one day be making fabulous music on ukuleles, I'd have thought you not a little unbalanced. Having recently gotten his wonderful Beatles tribute album a few months ago, I was delighted to see his name on this CD. This track is fun, laid-back, immensely inventive, and a joyous hoot.
#6 "Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag) " [Doug Smith]: Wonderfully full-bodied sound. This was reportedly Walt Disney's favorite Sherman Brothers song -- he often asked them to play it when they got together for meetings -- so it's nice that Mr. Smith evokes the film's arrangement, including the surging urgency of the bridge before the final verse. It's quite touching that when he starts that final verse, he pulls back to a slower tempo than before -- I've rarely seen a tempo change add such a feeling of poignancy to a song.
#7 "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" [Mark Hanson]: Highly inventive and crisply played. I must admit that it started out with a bit too much of a "plodding" feel [for lack of a better term], and I must admit I was tempted to jump to the next track. Then Mr. Hanson started with the chord and harmonic variations that proved to be quite appealing. Many albums have a song that has to grow on you, and this track is that way for me; I like it better each time I hear it, because I hear new things with each listening.
#8 "Let's Get Together" [Pat Donohue]: This selection strikes me as being the most far removed from the original version. Oh, it's the same song, but it doesn't have the same feel. The original was a driving soft rocker for the fabulous Hayley Mills in "The Parent Trap"; this arrangement still has a strong beat, but it's at a more relaxed tempo. It's neither better nor worse than the original -- it's just an equally enjoyable version. It's also a lot of fun -- I don't know what the technique is called when a guitarist bends from one pitch to another [oy vey, it's probably called "bending"!], but it sure is fun to hear, especially when someone does it this often and this clearly. Mr. Donohue's name is familiar to me; I think he's done "A Prairie Home Companion" numerous times. Whatever. In some ways, this track alone is worth the price of this CD.
#9 "The Slipper and the Rose Waltz" [Jim Tozier]: I didn't care much for this track. It's a lovely waltz that I didn't know before, and Mr. Tozier's playing is very good. But I just found this selection rather repetitive: The song is a very standard 32-bar composition, and no variations or notable embellishments are employed in this arrangement -- well, the accompaniment has texture and a nice flowing movement, but it didn't vary its path much. It would have been preferable to have something from the sublime "Charlotte's Web" score in this slot, such as the gorgeous and achingly sad ballad "Mother Earth and Father Time."
#10 "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" [Eltjo Haselhoff]: Very appealing intro that just barely hints at the song to follow -- always a nice touch in any arrangement. Surely this must be an overdub, because when the song gets going, the 2/4 "oom-pah oom-pah" polka accompaniment is amazingly clear, even when it gets faster. The several delightful emulations of Julie Andrews' high vocal "Woo" made me chortle.
#11 "The Age of Not Believing" [Elliot Easton]: This rendition is an improvement on the original film version, which had a kind of undefined mushy quality -- in other words, there wasn't a very clearly defined beat until the music got faster and more driving. So this arrangement is appealingly straightforward. Loved the disjointed jazz chords coming out of the fast section -- nice surprise.
#12 "I Wanna Be Like You" [Mike Dowling]: Yeah, at first I kept wanting Louis Prima's vocal to appear -- sue me. But Mr. Dowling still puts his own stamp on this song. Tons of variation, sudden dynamic changes, swoops & dives, unexpected jazz chords. Excellent track.
#13 "Chim Chim Cher-ee" [Nick Charles]: I really liked the 30-second introduction -- jeez, tons of magnificent variations before the song properly started! This arrangement is also markedly different from the original film "sound," and is very winning. It has a nice energy and urgency to it. It drives forward, then relaxes, then surges forward again. It keeps you on your toes -- which is a very good thing.
#14 "Stay Awake" [Tim Pacheco]: Another favorite Sherman Brothers song. In the film, I love the cleverness of the lyric imploring you to not fall asleep, coupled with an obvious lullaby intended to induce sleep. So don't listen to this track in the car, because it's very restrained and relaxing. I really liked the middle interlude, which to my ear has a lovely 1970s ballad feel in the chord variation.
#15 "It's a Small World" [Mark Hanson & Doug Smith]: Okay, I dreaded this one, of course. That song is just the epitome of cloying dreck in that waterlogged ride at Disneyland -- I like joy and happiness as much as anyone, but the version in that ride fairly chokes you with it. So while listening to this track, I found myself smiling in delight at how Messrs. Hanson and Smith did their best to wrench this lovely tune away from Disney excess and breathe some inventiveness and a refreshingly relaxed feel. That inventiveness is the key -- whereas we all cringe at the unrelenting repetition in the original version, these guitarists vary the style [and counterpoints] of the accompaniment on each verse and chorus. At the risk of engaging in hyperbole, this selection strikes me as a master class in how to make an arrangement anything but boring and repetitive. The next time I have to endure that Disneyland ride for the sake of out-of-town guests, I'm taking an iPod with THIS version to listen to!
Who knew that such iconic songs could sound almost brand new when interpreted by some of the world's most talented and creative guitarists? The first cut has the brilliant Tommy Emmanuel making "Winnie the Pooh" his very own...it absolutely transports the listener to a magical place. Wings Laurence Juber turns "A Spoonful of Sugar" into yet another one of his completely unique endeavors with savvy playing and miraculous, effortless riffs that knock you over with their surprising twists and turns.
Doug Smith's "Feed the Birds" is so heartfelt that it brings tears to my eyes....and Doug's and Mark Hansen's duet of "It's a Small World" takes you on a mini musical trip around the world in its execution, which is so creative and whimsical that you can tell that more than anything else, ALL of these wonderful musicians are playing from their "inner children" and remembering just what these tunes meant to them way back when.
But don't think that this is just a "Disney" album....there are tunes on this collection that I had NO IDEA were penned by the Shermans such as the Ringo Starr hit "You're Sixteen." What a blast hearing this song played expertly on the uke by Greg Hawkes of The Cars....again, a whole new way of hearing a classic song.
Disney fan or not, this collection of the Sherman Brothers songs will help you remember the comforting and safe feelings of being a child of the '60s and '70s, when life was ever-so much more simple and twinkly. It's a lovely place to revisit as a forty-something "grown up" all these years later. What a treat - from the first song til the last.
The best way for me to describe "Poppin' Guitars: A Tuneful of Sherman" is to say that these songs were played on guitar strings and anyone who listens to this incredible album will do so with their heart strings.
This is a truly magical album. I can't stop listening to it....and smiling.
I encourage you all to purchase as many cd's as possible and as soon as possible! I've already bought many for my friends and family and will continue to do so as often as I can... what a terrific gift. What a terrific idea!! Great job!
Thanks Sherman Brothers and Thanks Solid Air Records! Bravo!!