Friday, July 27, 2007

The SimpsonsThe Simpsons Sing The Blues

Released: December, 1990
Geffen Records

editors note: Sorry we've been absent this week... but I think this makes up for it, a classic album review from the one and only Nummer. BUZZZ!

As we prepare to join The Simpsons on their first big screen adventure today (gotta love that Spider-Pig), now’s a great time to look back at another Simpsons monument – their first album.

Released just in time for Christmas 1990, The Simpsons Sing the Blues was designed to cash in on an America already knee deep in Bart mania. The show’s second season was eight episodes in, Burger King was selling plush dolls, Acclaim and Nintendo were prepping video games, and t-shirts (both licensed and unlicensed) were selling by the score. In fact, it has been reported that during the first full season, Fox signed more than 100 licensing agreements for the show resulting in $750 million in domestic sales by the end of 1990. Logically, an album was next in the chain of merchandising. Right?

All they needed was a gimmick. I’m sure all musical genres were debated, but how they arrived at blues I’ll never know. I like to think the marketing meeting that spawned the album played a lot like the brainstorming session we saw in the eighth season classic “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show”. Remember that one? It had that great scene with producers and writers sitting around figuring out how to make the new character Poochie more appealing to kids (the result was a Kung Fu hippy dog from Gangster City who recycles). Brilliant.

Looking back at the music of November and December 1990, the US was doing anything but raiding the blues sections. Both “Love Takes Time” from Mariah Carey and “I’m Your Baby Tonight” from Whitney Houston were crowd favorites and believe it or not, Stevie B’s “Because I Love You (The Postman Song)” was getting ready for a four week run as Billboard’s #1. In short, Geffen was setting themselves up for a tough sell by releasing 10 tracks of cartoon characters singing the blues. Looking back, they didn’t need to worry too much though. 1990 also marked Geffen’s formation of DGC – a label that in the next few years would feature Nirvana, Weezer, Sonic Youth, Beck, etc.

Still, they pushed on. For Sing the Blues, 20th Century Fox got the primary voice actors (Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright and Yeardly Smith) to reprise the core Simpson family, as well as some additional help from Harry Shearer and Ron Taylor so a few secondary characters could also be included. Amazingly, Geffen also lined up an impressive number of guest musicians and writers. Michael Jackson (who had just been named Artist Of The Decade by President George H.W. Bush) helped pen the first single “Do the Bartman”, Buster Poindexter (aka David Johansen from The New York Dolls) did some vocal work, B.B. King showed up on guitar, Dr. John tickled the ivories, DJ Jazzy Jeff lent a bit of turntable skill and Detroit’s own Marcy Levy provided harmony vocals on a few tracks. Not stopping there, the Tower of Power horns and Joe Walsh (Mr. "Rocky Mountain Way" himself) also surfaced for a few minutes.

When the dust cleared, Sing the Blues was made up of 10 songs – 5 originals and 5 straight/ slightly re-worked covers ranging from Chuck Berry to Billie Holiday. Nearly each family member got their own song, but Bart and Lisa made up the majority. First out of the gate was “Do the Bartman” which for a time became just as popular as the series – I distinctly remember wearing a Bartman pin on my jacket during the 1990-1991 school year. While Bartman wouldn’t appear on the show until May of 1991, a music video was produced in advance of the album’s release that did gang busters on MTV. Shonen Knife even released a Japanese cover version as the b-side to their 1992 single, "Do the Knife".

So was the album any good? Being that we’re in 2007, I think the answer to that depends on when you listened to it. As a 12 year old, I begged my parents for it simply so I could hold the cassette case in my hand and be seen listening to “Do the Bartman” at the bus stop. Sadly, once the novelty of that song wore off, my friends and I never really warmed to the blues concept and moved on to Vanilla Ice’s just released To The Extreme. Guess Geffen’s gimmick didn’t work on my neighborhood’s kids after all. However, listening to it again now, Sing the Blues plays like a warm reminder of what the Simpsons used to be. Bart’s mischief was the centerpiece, Homer’s voice was still in its early oaf-ish stage, Lisa’s jazz roots were established, but her political stances had yet to be defined and Marge was pretty much filler. One song, “Look at all Those Idiots”, has aged particularly well. This is a track that takes us through a day in the life of C. Montgomery Burns. Of everyone on the album, Mr. Burns’ personality is still the same today as it was seventeen years ago. The song features his ever constant threat “release the hounds”, his inability to remember Homer’s name as well as the ambiguously gay Waylon Smithers. Senior Burns. So best.

The album peaked at #3 on the US charts, and spawned two additional singles over the next year – the sample heavy “Deep, Deep, Trouble” and “God Bless the Child”. To the delight of hardcore fans, 20th Century Fox would dust off the music videos for “Do the Bartman” and “Deep, Deep, Trouble” twelve years later to be included as bonus features on The Simpsons: The Complete Second Season DVD. For a real trip down memory lane, check out the Butterfinger commercials that show up on some of the season sets as well.

Original pressings of Sing the Blues are long out of print, but its re-release in 1996 can be found on Amazon for under $10. Eagle eye shoppers can also find copies lurking in bargain/used bins of record stores all over the country.

Four other Simpsons CDs would follow over the years: 1997 saw Songs in the Key of Springfield, 1998 gave us The Yellow Album and 1999 brought Go Simpsonic with The Simpsons. Of these albums, only The Yellow Album made an attempt at original music specifically produced for the album. The other two were collections of music heard on the TV show throughout the first nine seasons. To coincide with the movie, two more discs will be added to the Simpsons discography in 2007. The first is this week’s The Simpsons Movie: The Music, which I believe is mainly Hans Zimmer’s score, and the second is The Simpsons: Testify due out in September. Of these two, only Testify is a must own as it collects music from the 10th – 18th seasons of the series – a project some say was long overdue.

Rating: 3/5


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Blogger Yale Bloor said...

Hummer...great review, enclosed a link so your readers can conduct their own in-depth dissection of the new sound track and formulate their own opinions before purchasing said cd……..
OST - The Simpsons Movie (2007)

8:28 AM  

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