Having written a fair number of them, Paul Anka recognizes a contemporary standard when he hears one, even if it doesn't conform to the historical model as it's existed from the days of Tin Pan Alley to Broadway. And so his songbook of chestnuts plucked from the '80s and '90s rock canon, Rock Swings, fares much better than its closest contemporary, Pat Boone's novelty In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy. First of all, there's the material -- a compelling selection of standards that reveals a close inspection and an inspired reimagining of the pop and alternative artists of the period (perhaps not by Anka himself). The disc does commit a few errors by resorting to novelty selections (Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit"), but the big surprise here is that most of the songs slip into the standards bag with an uncanny ease (Pet Shop Boys' "It's a Sin," Billy Idol's "Eyes Without a Face," Lionel Richie's "Hello"). No matter how far the stretch, Anka and his inspired primary arranger, Randy Kerber, make these songs work in a swing context; in fact, it takes only a single listen to confirm that the narrator of even Van Halen's "Jump" is at heart quite the ring-a-ding swinger -- casual, cynical, knowing. There are other inspired choices here, tender ballads like R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" or Spandau Ballet's "True," and, astonishingly, the nihilist anthem "Blackhole Sun" by Soundgarden. Most of Chris Cornell's lyrics -- "Hang my head, drown my fear/ Till you all just disappear" -- could easily have found a home on Sinatra's Only the Lonely (although at least one line -- "Call my name through the cream/ And I'll hear you scream again" -- wouldn't have had a prayer). Anka only missteps when he tries to wring meaning from lyrics that require some emotion to carry them; on "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the prime offender, Anka slips into novelty territory when he injects a forceful "Yeah!" immediately after delivering Nirvana's classic lines "A mulatto, an albino/ A mosquito, my libido," as though he can confirm Kurt Cobain's words as a home truth.
Rock Swings Review
by John Bush