The faux-crooner Richard Cheese gives the “lounge against the machine” treatment to the likes of Guns N’ Roses, Michael Jackson, U2, Green Day, and then some on his latest Surfdog Records full-length, and there’s something genuinely impressive about the delivery.
“Welcome to the Jungle” gets worked over with tickled pianos and a full horn section. Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get it Started,” Beastie Boys’ “Brass Monkey,” and the infamously overblown “We are the World” are played as straight-faced bits of swinging, bebop-tinged jazz.
Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” is reworked, at times nearly barbershop quartet style, in an homage to “Mr. Sandman.” U2’s “Sunday Blood Sunday” becomes a Latin-rhythm dance-hall scorcher. Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” is re-imagined as a Vegas show-stopper.
But the thrust of the disc — despite Cheese’s unusual proficiency as a frontman and a velvet-voiced vocalist — is in its sense of humor, which often falls between the silly and the bizarre. It’s a brand of humor that can be predictable, even occasionally sophomoric, but for some reason, it’s also surprisingly engaging.
In short, this is the record of the year for the goofy prepubescent pre-teen hidden somewhere within many of us.
Cheese wastes no time in getting to the heart of the dick and fart jokes, as it were, with an album-opening jazz take on 2 Live Crew’s fairly vulgar “Me So Horny,” complete with the most stilted chorus you could imagine.
(Within a minute or two, to be blunt, the record earns its “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” stripes.)
From there, it’s on to Slipknot’s “People Equals Shit,” where Cheese passionately delivers the incongruous, angst-ridden patchwork of the group’s lyrics, stepping into falsetto as he stretches out the two syllables of “Satan” or lending a blustery, neo-Sinatra edge to lines like “Come on, motherfucker, everybody has to die.”
Takes on “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Been Caught Stealing,” and Violent Femmes’ “Add it Up” are often just as ridiculous and, if you’re willing to let your guard down, just as much fun.
(In the upbeat jazz cover of the Jane’s Addiction song, Cheese’s “producer” — Phil Spector — “shoots” a very vocal dog; in the famous Guns N’ Roses track, Cheese seriously implores, “Pardon me? Do you know where you are? You’re in the jungle, baby.”)
For all the impressive arrangements and studio production, there are jokes and moments that seem just too obvious to work — Cheese duets with an impersonated Stephen Hawkings on the Michael Jackson/Paul McCartney track “The Girl is Mine,” and slips a “We are the world / Keep Michael Jackson away from your children” into “We are the World.” (The verdict’s still out on whether it’s funny or not to hear a producer interrupt a stagy Cheese during a very short take on Bell Biv Devoe’s “Do Me” where he sings the title as one word instead of two.)
But, by and large, Cheese hits all the marks that he sets in his sights, and not all of them are overcooked.
In the reworked and dramatic rhythms of Alice in Chain’s “Man in the Box,” he pokes fun at the senseless egotism of endless player solos by giving pause for a drum solo that’s little more than spare, metronomic clacking on the side of a snare head. In Green Day’s biting “American Idiot,” Cheese cranks up the satire even higher, skittering through a quick medley of familiar songs after smoothly singing the punk outfit’s political critiques.
As he moves from the patriotic jingoisms of “My country ’tis of thee” or “God Bless America” into “La cucaracha” or the “Fa-la-la-la-la La-la La-la” of a Christmas song, you can’t help but think Cheese is sticking it to those whose patriotism and sense of American nationalism is, to say the least, somewhat blindly informed. I’m still unsure of the commentary, if any, of treating The Killers’ “Somebody Told Me” as a drunken, closing-time piano blues-fest, but, nonetheless, it’s pretty funny.
(You can actually hear the ice clinking the side of the scotch glass as Cheese moans and later shouts, “Somebody told me / you had a boyfriend / who looked like a girlfriend / That I had in / February of last year / it’s not confidential / I’ve got potential.” He nearly cries over the last notes and then, after the song ends, if you listen closely, you can hear Cheese vomiting. Yes, nice touch.)
Compilations and tongue-in-cheek pseudo-satirists reinventing pop/rock numbers as fodder for Dr. Demento are anything but new. The tradition may have reached an apex of sorts with “Weird Al” Yankovic, but it had early practitioners in comedic geniuses like the vastly overlooked Tom Lehrer and the quirky bandleader Spike Jones.
Richard Cheese is a songsmith more in the tradition of those behind The Moog Cookbook and Grunge Lite, recent records that cast alternative-rock and Seattle grunge, respectively, as elevator Muzak. But he’s good at what he does: lending a credible voice and a snazzy ear for arrangement to the pursuit of rushing sometimes-straight-faced chart-toppers into the diamond-studded, late-period-Elvis excesses of the Vegas stage.
It might not be great art. But it can be great fun. – Delusions of Adequacy, July 13, 2005