Rockabye Baby! – Lullaby Renditions of Metallica
Speaking of sleep terror, Rockabye Baby! is a series of CD's of lullaby versions of rock songs. Currently the series has 19 releases devoted to songs by Coldplay, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, Tool, Led Zeppelin, and The Ramones, among others. Evidently, upcoming albums will include songs by AC/DC, Kanye West (!), Depeche Mode, and Black Sabbath.
This may seem like an innocuous idea. But the more I think about it, the more interesting it seems. What's a lullaby? A song to put a baby to sleep. What makes a song a lullaby? It's peaceful and soothing, i.e., lulling. How would one make a lullaby? It can't be too fast. Instrumentation is important - no distortion or extreme frequencies.
Thus, the Rockabye Baby! recordings feature "delicate instruments such as the glockenspiel, vibraphone, mellotron, harp, and bells." One guy, Michael Armstrong, performs all the instruments. Interestingly, the parameters of the series include no pianos (to avoid sounding like piano tributes) and no strings, flutes, or acoustic guitar (to avoid sounding like Renaissance faires).
The Metallica disc is the best-selling one in the series so far. This makes complete sense to me. Lullabizing Metallica is an extreme makeover, and thus more interesting. In contrast, lullabizing Coldplay, for example, seems rather redundant.
But, more importantly, the disc has actual musical value - beyond lullabies, comedy (what the Washington Post called it), and even the original intent - taking the teeth out of the music. Anyone, not just youngsters, can derive pleasure from this disc, for two reasons.
The first is that Metallica songs are perfect for the setting. Look at the instrumentation - it's all gentle and percussive. Metallica were the kings of melodic, jangly clean tones (which of course led to mayhem in due time). "Fade to Black"? "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)"? The bridge in "Master of Puppets"? All untouchable, and which will fall from my fingers onto every guitar I own.
The second is a little deeper. Metallica songs are often attuned to child anxieties (as opposed to, say, Nine Inch Nails or Nirvana, which tap into teen angst), especially on the Black Album. James Hetfield's parental abandonment issues are well known. I haven't heard the Smashing Pumpkins disc, but I bet it it's good, as that band also successfully explored children's perspectives.
Of course, Metallica explore the dark side of such perspectives. It's questionable what message, if any, "One," "Fade to Black," and "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" convey to someone who's just starting out life. The lyrics and distortion are gone, but the vibe of the songs still comes through. That's the brilliance of this disc.
The best song covers put the originals in a new light. That's exactly the case here. Stripped of nearly everything that defines them - tones, delivery, context - these songs are reduced to their essence (this wouldn't work for, say, Slayer, who derive their impact as much, if not more, from performance than composition). Now these songs are just melodies and harmonies, laid bare in their brilliance.
"One" - just thinking about it gives me chills. It's one of the few pieces of music that genuinely make me want to cry. As I grow older, and mortality looms on the horizon, the song grows more poignant. Amazingly, this lullaby version captures that weight. When it breaks into lush polyphony around 1:03, it feels like a flower blooming, a picture coming into focus - though the image isn't pretty.
"Wherever I May Roam" does likewise. The song is probably the closest thing to a personal anthem for me, and I'm shocked at the insight this version reveals. The Phrygian-flavored intro is delightful; years of metal have made Phrygian modes feel much more natural to me than standard major/minor scales. But when it shifts up a half step at :58, it feels like a wonderland opening up - which connotes the openness of the road that the song celebrates. Of course, the original has this, but I didn't truly hear this at work until now.
Not all the covers are so successful. Surprisingly, "Enter Sandman" comes off flat (cheekily, "(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth" is also included). "Battery" and "...And Justice for All" only have their melodic intros, though understandably so. It would seem impossible to lullabize the speed metal part of "Battery." "Fade to Black" and "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" wade into their rocking parts, but sound like mere strolls in the park.
On the whole, though, this disc is thoroughly enjoyable. I'm not sure it's lullaby material, or if it's even relaxing. Probably if one were a parent and wanted to get some sleep, this album might not shut Junior up. But it'll at least start him on music appreciation.