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The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
I Hear a Symphony: The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Perform The Classic Hits of Motown
Silva Screen Records
Ray Davies & the Crouch End Festival Chorus
The Kinks Choral Collection
In the '60s, at the height of pop's British Invasion, a symphony orchestra dubbed the Hollyridge Strings released three successful albums of the Beatles Songbook. It was fairly dreadful overall, but these were the renditions of Lennon-McCartney music that would be heard in elevators, banks and supermarkets for decades to come. (The formula sold so well, in fact, that it led Rolling Stones producer-manager Andrew Loog Oldham to conduct an orchestral album of Stones music ... which years later led to Jagger & Richards becoming co-writers of the Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" when Richard Ashcroft sampled "The Last Time" from that LP.)
And the tradition, perhaps unfortunately, appears to continue on I Hear a Symphony, on which Britain's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, with vocal accompaniment by the Crouch End Festival chorus, takes on 14 classics, most of which originated right here in Detroit. The majority of it, though, doesn't cut it a whole lot better than the Hollyridge Strings did. Berry Gordy, Smokey and the other Motown producers knew a hook wasn't something you beat the listener over the head with, turning redundancy into absurdity — but that's exactly what the strings seem to be doing here with the archetypal openings of songs like "Dancing in the Street," "I Heard It through the Grapevine" and "Get Ready." And the choir is much too pristine for the songs, lacking the gritty emotion that was the trademark of most Motown hits. It does work somewhat on the ever-melodic "For Once in My Life," "What's Going On," and, especially, "Touch Me in the Morning" ... but, strangely, not "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted," before winding up with one of the worst covers and arrangements imaginable of "Someday We'll Be Together." Ultimately, it might remind listeners of nothing so much as one of those cheesy Moody Blues albums from the early '70s with all their pseudo-classical interludes and pretensions.
The Crouch End Festival Chorus also shows up on Ray Davies' new choral collection of Kinks classics, and while it works better than the Motown collection, it also looks like it may warrant the most mixed reviews of the year next to Dylan's new Christmas disc. Perhaps because Davies is in charge of the production and sings lead (quite well too!), and because there's an actual rock band on hand (with a guitarist imitating David Davies' seminal guitar parts), the chorus sounds more passionate, less wooden, here. It works best, as one would probably expect, on ballads like "Days," "Waterloo Sunset," the relatively newer (and beautiful) "Working Man's Cafe"; the "Celluloid Heroes" here may be the best version of them all. But "You Really Got Me" was never made for a choir or symphonic aspirations anymore than "Get Off My Cloud" was, and by the end of the "Village Green Medley," you may find yourself once again simply wishing Ray would just call Dave and the others and put the Kinks back together for another tour and album. This is just a pleasant but not crucial diversion for big Kinks fans.
Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.