Odd Musical Pairings (Podcast and Picks)

A while back I highlighted some podcasts I’d quite enjoyed, and I’d like to continue that because it helps me keep track of them too. So here’s NPR All Songs Considered’s Odd Musical Pairings podcast, which I liked because I’ve always had an interest in musical collaborations, and why some work while others don’t.

Most of what they featured was already known to me, but The Face Of Love (Eddie Vedder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan!) was a much-welcome discovery. They followed this up with Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash doing Girl From The North Country, making for a one-two punch of awesomeness which made me hate myself for not having listened to Nashville Skyline in about nine years.

As for the collaborations that didn’t work, it’s a pity the podcast page already tells you the full playlist, because knowing what’s coming somewhat spoils the unfolding tragedy of Bono’s verses in his I’ve Got You Under My Skin duet with Sinatra. Still, if you’re the sort that enjoys watching horror movies with unlikable characters in them just so that you can savour watching them die, check that massacre out.

I tried to come up with picks of my own to make this post less parasitic, but found it harder than expected. I have one clunker which everyone else seems to love, and some favourites which aren’t really that “odd” once you go a little past the initial incongruity of the pairing. But what the hell, I’ll list them anyway.

Let’s get the clunker out of the way first. I know the Alison Krauss and Robert Plant album got shitloads of acclaim but I found it very lacklustre. There are a few pretty songs (I like Your Long Journey), and kudos to Robert Plant for not being all Led Zeppy, but when you pair a leading light of bluegrass with an icon of blues-rock, you do expect to hear a bit of both in the end result. Instead, Alison Krauss sounds beautiful as usual but the songs she’s singing lack the verve and personality of her work with Union Station, and Robert Plant just sounds like a good backup singer. I could play the particular examples I’m thinking of, I suppose, but life is too short to listen to boring music. So here’s one of the better results of the collaboration: Gone Gone Gone.

And now for some favourites:

Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield: What Have I Done To Deserve This – Dusting off (sorry!) retro divas for modern collaborations has been done before (cf. Take That featuring Lulu on Relight My Fire, KLF featuring Tammy Wynette on Justified And Ancient) but I like this one best, for the inimitable elegance of the song and how Dusty blends in so perfectly without any of the vocal scenery-chewing that tends to result in these situations.

Loretta Lynn and Jack White: Portland, Oregon – Only odd if you don’t already know about Jack White’s passion for American roots music. He’d been persona non grata in my iPod for a while because of how violently I dislike Seven Nation Army, but his contributions to the Cold Mountain soundtrack and the amazing production he did for Loretta Lynn’s majestic Van Lear Rose album soon got him back in there again. This ode to the joys of a sloe gin fizz-fuelled hookup is an inspired match – both are in fine voice, his ebullient guitar work underlines the chutzpah of her singing, and I adore the chemistry they have in the video.

Mariah Carey with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony: Breakdown – Such collaborations are routine in the late 2000s pop landscape, but were nowhere as common when this came out in 1998. I recall Mariah being one of the first big stars to start the trend, and this is one of the best of those pioneering efforts. Bone Thugs’ distinctive sound makes this more memorable to me than many of the other pop/R&B tracks that have been done since, and I especially like how Mariah’s own phrasing seems to echo theirs.

Hercules and Love Affair with Antony Hegarty: Blind – This wasn’t a pairing I expected to like, since I’m not a great appreciator of disco revivalism or Antony Hegarty’s singing style. But once taken out of the dreary atmosphere of I Am A Bird Now (sorry, it’s the only Antony and the Johnsons album I’ve listened to and I was bored stiff) and recontextualised in the upbeat, infectious melody lines of Blind, Antony sounds robust and vital rather than precious. I still remember the first time I heard this – one of the other girl DJs played it at Hacienda the same night I popped my DJ cherry, and I immediately realized that every single song I’d lovingly picked out and sequenced for my set had just been effortlessly eclipsed.

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