Theo Bleckmann Performs Kate Bush (CD Review)

Theo Bleckmann

Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush

Winter & Winter CD

Often, we discuss covers – artists interpreting songs written by others – in relation to their original renditions. Hello Earth!, a quintet outing by vocalist Theo Bleckmann and a quartet of musicians with jazz and contemporary classical backgrounds, is devoted to the music of prog pop songwriter Kate Bush. It is a loving homage to Bush’s textured arrangements, and thoughtful, atmospheric, and, at times quirky, catalogue. However, to frame Bleckmann’s recasting of this music as a set of covers is to undervalue the considerable transformation these songs undergo here.

This doesn’t mean wholesale deconstruction. Although it starts out tempo rubato, one’s pulse will still surge by the second verse of Bleckmann’s rendition of “Running Up That Hill.” Both it and the title track inhabit a world of morphing, flexible, and swinging rhythms that are the stuff of modern jazz. But Bleckmann and drummer John Hollenbeck are well aware that, in order for the pop propensities of Bush’s songs to also be respected, this pliability of tempo must be met with corresponding forward momentum. Add to this the experimental touches that appear on the CD, such as prepared harpsichord, toy instruments, and other atmospherics, and the balance that is achieved would be the envy of many tight rope acts.

What the artists avoid doing, and perhaps this is a secret to some of the record’s charm, is seeking to recreate Bush’s well nigh inimitable and often theatrical performance persona. Bleckmann is a singer with a powerful and singular sounding instrument and formidable stage presence of his own; he wisely avoids any whiff of caricature. While the aforementioned affection and awareness for the originals is evident, there is no by the numbers recreation attempted on the instrumental musical front either. Instead, Bleckmann and his estimable cohorts pleasingly avoid literal mindedness when crafting their arrangements. The clearest demonstration of this: in “Saxophone Song” Caleb Burhans’ violin replaces the saxophone solo of the original. On “Violin,” the band moves from the more acoustic-based sound world that prevails on the album to a more rollicking and plugged in aesthetic. Burhans shreds on guitar in tandem with thrumming bass licks from Skúli Sverrisson, Hollenbeck unleashing an uncharacteristically aggressive barrage, and pianist Henry Hey’s Leslie-saturated rock organ work.

Bleckmann also refuses campy choices. “This Woman’s Work” could certainly have been accommodated at pitch in the singer’s attractive falsetto; As Ann Powers pointed out on NPR, this approach once helped to supply a big hit to Maxwell. Instead, Bleckmann allows the lead vocals, and backing vocals overdubs, to span his range from low to high; inhabiting the song’s emotive content rather than consigning it to a gender stereotype. It’s a masterful, and affecting, album closer.

One thought on “Theo Bleckmann Performs Kate Bush (CD Review)

  1. I haven’t heard this CD. But Bleckmann’s version of Running Up That Hill, which I’ve heard more than once, is so tepid, so weirdly unemotional, that I’m baffled why New York writers continue to describe his singing in such glowing terms. To my ears, he sounds completely disconnected from the power of the lyrics, or unable to deliver through singing the emotional punch(es) that the song needs. The performance then is sort of like aural wallpaper or a fashionable lamp you’d buy for your apartment. But there’s a powerful emotional arc to the song, however subtle, that he doesn’t tap into.

    Bush is a great composer. Why describe her in terms of a “pop” artist? She’s not. She was experimenting and taking music into areas it hadn’t been before. She’s worked with more variety in harmonic and rhythmic approaches to songs than most NYC composers I’ve heard AND she delivers the goods as a performer. I’m sure Bleckmann is envious of her ability to connect with audiences, it’s strange though how that ability is seen as suspect by people in the academic community. But that’s another subject.

    There are also musicians in NYC who have interpreted Bush’s songs to great effect, again imho. They’re just outside the camp of indie-classical-whatever, and have a wee bit more soul.

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