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Reviewed by Will Harris
Anka’s own chart successes are decidedly significant, but more notable is what a rare breed he was in the ‘50s: a teen idol who actually composed his own material. Though he became a schmaltz-pop punchline in 1974 as a result of the excruciating “(You’re) Having My Baby” – to put things in perspective as to how awful it is, my wife’s pregnant with our first child right now, and I’d sooner serenade her with B-Rock’s “My Baby Daddy” – Anka could always fall back on having co-written “My Way” and the theme to “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Plus, the songwriting royalties flowed freely during the late ‘70s, thanks to covers of his material by Leif Garrett (“Put Your Head On My Shoulder”), Donny Osmond (“Puppy Love”), and, lest we forget, Tom Jones (“She’s A Lady”).
How ironic, then, that someone who’s renowned for his songwriting abilities would opt to release an album consisting solely of covers.
Anka’s first album of new material since 1998’s A Body of Work, Rock Swings is instantly, if unfortunately, reminiscent of another former teen idol who released an all-covers collection a few years back: Pat Boone. Coming on the heels of his controversial remarks about heavy metal, Boone attempted retribution by recording In A Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy in 1997, an album that was 100% novelty, less funny each time you heard it, but, even worse, not all that witty to begin with.
But Rock Swings is...well, it’s best summed up with the following phrase: oh, baby, does it swing...and how!
The idea of Paul Anka doing covers of the Pet Shop Boys, Soundgarden, and Oasis may seem ludicrous on the surface, but it’s not the stretch it might initially appear to be. Take a gander at these facts:
- Liza Minnelli teamed up with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe in 1989, where she did covers of “Rent” and “Tonight Is Forever.”
- Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme performed “Black Hole Sun” on 1997’s Lounge-A-Palooza.
- “Wonderwall” became a faux easy-listening staple in 1996, courtesy of a swell cover by the Mike Flowers Pops.
Conceiving of how Anka might interpret Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” Van Halen’s “Jump,” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” may tax your imagination to the point of overload, but it’s the damnedest thing: not only do the songs work in a jazzy environment, they actually become more enjoyable with each successive listen. Conductor / arranger Randy Kerber – who was apparently under a court order to play keyboards on every album released during the ‘80s, from Kenny Rogers to Kenny Loggins, Corey Hart to Juice Newton – has gone out of his way to adjust the arrangements of these songs significantly, often hiding their familiar melodies in plain sight. The more you listen to these new arrangements, the more comfortable the songs feel in their new surroundings.
The only song that doesn’t bear much similarity to its original incarnation is the version of the Cure’s “Lovecats.” By coincidence, it’s also the only song that truly makes you wonder, “Exactly how on God’s green earth did Paul Anka come to record this?” As much as I’d love to believe it happened, I just can’t envision Anka coming into the studio one day, saying, “Okay, I listened to Japanese Whispers all damned night, and we’re just gonna have to flip a coin. Heads, we do ‘Let’s Go To Bed,’ tails, ‘The Lovecats.’”
If there’s a poor choice of song anywhere here, at least it’s the last track, so you can just shut the disc off early. Covering Eric Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven” might’ve seemed like a good idea as an epic closer, but it’s just not happening.
Rock Swings is, in a word, fun...novel without being a novelty. It goes without saying that it’s the soundtrack to your next cocktail party, given how smooth and suave Anka sounds throughout, but the press release offers a very viable suggestion as well: “Crank it loud in your car with the windows open and the top down.” This is a conversation piece that’ll grab the attention of most everyone who hears it.
With a little luck, Rock Swings could give Paul Anka the sort of career renaissance that Tony Bennett scored a few years ago. Fingers crossed, people.