Apr 26, 2012

[REVIEW] The Portland Cello Project: Homage


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once claimed that music is the international language of mankind. No matter where you are from, no matter what dialect you speak or if you can not speak at all, music is the great medium that can speak to everyone.  Even those who are deaf can feel vibrations from the music and can respond to it.

However as Yo-Yo Ma observed, unless people are willing to understand multiple perspectives, Music is not truly able to be a universal language.   And there are many who refuse to step outside of their comfort zone and accept that there can be more than one interpretation of something.  That they feel that they can only relate to a single type of music.

I've known many who refuse to accept hip hop as a legitimate music form due to many in the genre's reliance on computers, rather than live instrumentation.  And while there are those out there who do utilize actual instruments, most prominently being The Roots, there are still many who decry the idea of hip hop being a true musical form.

In 2001 Ted Nugent got into an argument with Bill Maher on Maher's ABC show "Politically Incorrect" about hip hop.  Maher posited that producer Dr. Dre was the "Phil Spector of hip hop" which Nugent laughed off and mocked.  His thinking was that hip hop relied on computers and not actual instruments.


He wanted it to be the way HE did it or the way he was comfortable with.  Nugent seemed unable or unwilling to step out of his comfort zone and accept that there could be other ways to do music.  He was stuck in motion. 

I've always found it interesting that you can have two people listen to the same thing and get two radically different responses.  One will absolutely love it, and another could despise it.  Where one hears a sort of beauty and love, another can experience nothing but boredom or anxiety.

I long ago realized that many would not share my views on music, and nothing really exemplifies how right I was on that than when it comes to multi-genre music.  I don't know if that's the correct terminology for it, but there are artists or groups that I love that push the boundaries on what you can do musically.  Where there may have once been lines separating the various music types, now there is no line.  Perhaps there never was one, only ones of self restraint and inhibition.

Artists such as Apocalyptica, a band from Finland which plays heavy metal on Cellos, or Miri Ben-Ari, the Israeli Jazz Musician who plays hip hop music on the Violin, or the Hidden Beach Unwrapped series which combines hip hop, R&B and live jazz fluently, have taken that step.

Where there was once only the occasional song that would do this, such as Nas' Hate me Now which utilized Carl Orff's Carmina Buruna, it's evolved into a more common thing.  So much so that last year the Country/Bluegrass/HipHop group "Gangstagrass" was nominated for an Emmy for their song "The Long Hard Times to Come" which is the theme song to the FX hit series "Justified".


The latest group that I've noticed that does this type of thing (although to be fair to them they've been around since 2007) is the Portland Cello Project (aka PCP) which takes, as you probably guessed, Cellos and have reinterpreted everything from other classical music, to heavy metal grou Pantera to Kanye West.   And it is with the latter that we find them with their newest offering, "Homage" which is a collection of hip hop interpretations on Cellos.

As I alluded to before, this is not a project for everyone.  Sadly everyone won't get this, which brings us back to Yo-Yo Ma's quote about those who are unable to embrace multiple perspectives.  There are many hip hop purists who will scoff at this and derisively refer to it as "Muzak" and walk away from it without even really listening to it, and likewise there'll be a some classical purists who will turn up their noses at this.

When I interviewed Rench from Gangstagrass last year I asked him about dealing with how some in the country/bluegrass field and those in the hip hop world probably don't like the idea of their music being mixed together like that and perhaps view it as a "bastardization", and he had an interesting take on it.  He said the following:

"I love it when people are outraged, it gives me reassurance that I am doing something at least a little groundbreaking. Mostly it comes from bluegrass purists who think it is morally wrong to mix it with hip-hop. They actually use phrases like “against the laws of nature.”

But that is just the purists and I am not concerned with winning them over. They are a small fraction of listeners. A lot of bluegrass fans love it, and there are a lot of people out there who already listen to country or bluegrass and hip-hop, who have Bill Monroe and Outkast on their mp3 player.

And I think that's how you have to approach doing a project like this.  You're never going to win over all the fans of the artists you cover, and there's a chance that even an artist you cover might not be with it, but music evolution is a natural process.  Everything can't stay the same, and I think that most true music fans understand that.

With PCP's newest collection, Homage, it's a fascinating listen.  Born out of their performance of Kanye West's "All of the Lights" last January, the project evolved into a nine track album of a variety of hip hop hit songs.  As you get with a lot of these "multi-genre" offerings, not everything works, but the majority of it does.  There are some tracks on here such "That's My B" (Jay Z + Kanye West), "She Will" (Lil Wayne) and the lively "Hey Ya!" (Outkast) that are top notch and I found myself listening to them a lot.  Then there were others that seemed to drag a bit in areas, such as the "Canon on a Lollipopalicious Theme" (Lil Wayne), and "Fugue On A Monstrous Theme" (Kanye West), but overall it was a very solid outing.  I really enjoyed  "Get By" (Talib Kweli) which had my head nodding along with it as I had the words to the song running through my head along with the cellos playing.

As a bonus track to those who pre-ordered the CD (which I did) you got their take on "N****s in Paris" via an immediate download, which was delightful in it's own way, and while it was not as bouncy and frenetic as the original, that's not a fair criticism because not much could be.

I think with a lot of these types of offerings in which you're interpreting something like hip hop which often is utilizing computers and keyboards and whatnot and are trying to recreate that with live instruments such as a cello or a violin, something can get lost in the translation, so to speak.  It's not something that is easily explained it's just that you listen to it and you think "something's missing.  It doesn't have that....THING", in relation to the original tracks that made them so good.  And it's easy to think that that's a bad thing, when it's not.

However the great thing about "Homage" and other like minded projects, is that it's not really seeking to replace those songs in your minds.  They're not cover songs in the sense of "I'm going to do it better" or anything like that. It is simply a fresh take on it.  Call it a companion piece.  An accompaniment, if you will.

All in all this is a very solid release with many highlights throughout not only technically but also emotionally in the way of the Portland Cello Project expertly playing their instruments and really finding their groove in many of these songs.   Also their track "Lua Descolorida" (Osvaldo Golijov), which is not a hip hop track, was simply beautiful in every sense of the word and left me speechless.

As I said I didn't like everything on here, but I liked a whole lot more than I didn't.  And to be honest there's not a lot wrong with that. 

You would be doing yourself a favor by checking out the Portland Cello Project and picking up their new release "Homage", and experience it for yourself.

Break out of that musical box you're in and see what all is out there waiting for you.




Justin Kagan, Skip Von Kuske, Gideon Freudmann, Anna Fritz, Allegra M, Sonja Myklebust, Galen Cohen, Kevin Jackson, Douglas Jenkins, Ashia Grzesik, Samantha Kushnick, Robert Brooks, Brian Bruner, Emma Wood, Collin Oldham, Melissa Bach and Sarah Young. 

Winds and Horns: 
 John Whaley, Jen Harrison, Teagen Andrews, Jourdan Paul, Jill Coykendall, Leander Star, and Elise Blatchford. 

Matt Berger, John Vecchiarrelli, and Rachel Blumberg.

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