Imagine wandering into a nightclub somewhere on the outskirts of time. A classic jukebox in the corner plays timeless music with oddly familiar modern lyrics, incongruously marrying the 21st century party vibe of Miley Cyrus or the minimalist angst of Radiohead is incongruously married with the crackly warmth of a vintage 78 or the plunger-muted barrelhouse howl of a forgotten Kansas City jazzman. The dance floor is full of revelers twerking in poodle skirts, while at the bar well-heeled hipsters balance a martini in one hand with a smartphone in the other.
If such a place actually exists, no doubt the soundtrack is Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox. Founded by pianist and arranger Scott Bradlee in 2009, the ensemble reimagines contemporary pop, rock and R&B hits in the style of various yesteryears, from swing to doo-wop, ragtime to Motown – or, as Bradlee himself puts it, “pop music in a time machine.” The band parlayed a series of YouTube videos shot in Bradlee’s Queens living room into massive success, accruing more than 500 million YouTube views and over 2 million subscribers, an appearance on “Good Morning America,” and performances at packed houses across the globe.
The Essentials, relased on September 30 via Concord Records and Postmodern Jukebox Records, collects 18 favorites from Postmodern Jukebox’s weekly postings. Both the songs and the styles span decades – it just happens that the decades in question are separated by about half a century. Bradlee’s choice of material ranges from the ‘80s hard rock of Guns N’ Roses to hits as recent as last year’s Justin Bieber plea “Sorry.” They’re rendered by a rotating cast of musicians and singers in fashions that date back to a time when Axl, Slash and Bieber’s parents had yet to be born – a time of street corner harmonies and torch singers, blues belters and golden-voiced crooners.
In his liner notes Bradlee writes, “It’s my hope that this collection will lead you to discover a world of nostalgia for the music of the past ─ regardless of when you were born ─ and welcome you warmly into our community of amazing live performers, creative artists, and music lovers that are dedicated to keeping #RealMusic alive.”
If that hashtag denotes a modern-day mission statement, that’s no accident. Bradlee conceived Postmodern Jukebox as a tonic for the autotuned vocals and programmed beats that populate today’s radio soundscape. Postmodern Jukebox combines a genuine appreciation for the melodies and songcraft of these recent hits with a passion for talented musicians playing real instruments.
“I just wanted to make music in the classic styles of ragtime, blues, swing, doo wop, and Motown that I loved as a kid,” Bradlee writes. The album, he continues, includes “breathtaking vocal performances, raucous horn solos, infectious dance rhythms, and nostalgic melodies – all captured the way music was recorded in the Golden Age of the record industry: with everyone together, in the same room.”
In the early days, that room was in the rather cramped confines of Bradlee’s small apartment in Queens, NY, at a time when he was one of countless struggling musicians in the city. The backdrop has grown along with the ensemble’s success, but the spirit remains the same – a collective of musicians dedicated to the timelessness of music, performing songs vibrantly and without a trace of irony. And the media has taken notice: Entertainment Weekly wrote, “Scott Bradlee’s group is known for retro-fying modern hit songs into viral success,” while Yahoo! Music added, “if you’ve been on YouTube in the last couple of years, then you’re familiar with the everything-new-is-old-again brilliance of the viral phenomenon known as Postmodern Jukebox.”
In its seven years of existence, Postmodern Jukebox has recorded literally hundreds of songs, but this release compiles the best of them, the tunes that Bradlee himself calls “most essential to the PMJ universe.” That includes the song that put the band on the map, a vaudevillian distressing of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” fronted by Robyn Adele Anderson that garnered more than a million views within a week of being posted. The pin-up styled singer returned for the album’s opener, their ‘50s doo-wop version of Miley Cyrus’ celebration of an inhibition-shedding spree, “We Can’t Stop,” which garnered more than 19.5 million views and was named one of the “9 Best Viral Cover Videos of 2015” by People magazine.
Maroon 5’s “Maps” flashes forward a couple of decades for a horn-laden ‘70s soul sound featuring the powerhouse voice of Morgan James, while American Idol alum Haley Reinhart wrings the emotion from Radiohead’s breakthrough hit “Creep” as a torch singer worthy of Julie London. And while Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” referred to the singer’s curves, Kate Davis takes it to another level with a smoking upright bass performance to augment a coy vocal redolent of Billie Holiday.
Heavy metal and New Orleans jazz may seem to have little in common but Bradlee finds the thread connecting the two, rendering both “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses and The Darkness’ “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” as gutbucket Bourbon Street blues numbers featuring the stirring voices of Maiya Sykes and Miche Braden. Mykal Kilgore, meanwhile, rescues “My Heart Will Go On” from titanic schmaltz to Jackie Wilson-style R&B.
Similarly revelatory transformations mark every song on the album, which also includes favorites by Beyoncé, the White Stripes, Outkast and Lorde, who praised PMJ’s cover of her hit “Royals” as a favorite. That’s not even the most notable thing about the song, which is sung in the gorgeous baritone of Puddles, the “Sad Clown with the Golden Voice,” a performer in full facepaint and ruffles that Bradlee describes as a cross between Andy Kaufman and Tom Jones.
Postmodern Jukebox is certainly a rebuke to the contention that “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” The Essentials is an engaging and vivacious album that bridges generations with a unique spin of its own. To echo Bradlee’s own invitation: “Dust off the turntable, fix yourself a stiff drink, and get comfy. Welcome to the world of Postmodern Jukebox.”