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Music Reviews

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Castle Talk
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The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
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Sub Pop
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The Walkmen - Lisbon
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Fat Possum
Shawn Lee\'s Ping Pong Orchestra
Hits The Hits

Rating: 8.5/10 ?

October 4, 2007
Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra's latest album, Hits The Hits, harkens back to the golden era of music when pop tunes were made by songwriters, performed by pop stars, and then reinterpreted by airtight lounge acts and studio bands for additional usage in clubs, for commercial jingles, et cetera. In this case Lee and his Orchestra act as the third party, an airtight soul-funk collective interpolating 14 undeniably catchy pop hits of the last few years.

From its intro Hits The Hits recalls Ramsey Lewis's The "In" Crowd (complete with idle chatter, hand claps and party sounds) with a live, piano-led recapturing of Outkast's "Hey Ya." Although the original tune has long since become oversaturated from ad nauseam radio play (as a few of these originals have), this cover version reinvigorates the cut through an all-instrumental, soul-jazz approach. Vocal melodies are turned into piano chords, and harmonica wheezings bring on an interesting but well-placed new element.

The rest of Hits The Hits isn't live but does recapture tired charts in colorful, unique, and sometimes humorous ways. Missy Elliott's "Get UR Freak On" is taken into a James Bond, Latin-infused spy movie light; Britney Spears's "Toxic" is made more Indian/Middle Eastern through the addition of sitar, flute, tabla, and tremelo'd guitar; Gorillaz's "Clint Eastwood" is reggae dub-ified with offbeat guitar, reverbed drums, and melodica. Part of the fascination that this disc carries is guessing what the next cover is - because the interpretations are often tailor made - and what new edges (genre styles, instrumental usages, methods of recreation) will be added.

It is crucial to say that Shawn Lee and his Ping Pong Orchestra are a highly capable and wide-ranging collective. At their core the group is an airtight, groove-heavy, horn-popping funk band. With each song comes another beat that will cause an outburst of dancing and another break that will be sampled by hip-hoppers sometime in the future. It's crazy to say it, but, the Ping Pong Orchestra is not totally unique in their stylistic precision; other groups like Budos Band, the Dap Kings, and labelmates Breakestra and Orgone can claim at least as much.

Where the group does differentiate themselves is in the way they approach simple, radio friendly compositions. When did anyone think to tack on a solo of The Sound of Music's "My Favorite Things" to Badly Drawn Boy's "Once Around the Block"? Or, making Justin Timberlake's already danceable "Rock Your Body" a vehicle for Esquivel-like xylophone, a bluesy guitar solo, and Quincy Jones-esque horn arrangements?

Further, the group does it all with a split-sense of creative professionalism and tongue-in-cheek humor. During "Get UR Freak On" the group growls "Freak!/ Get yo' freak awn!" - and they begin Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" by barking "No! No! No!" It's hard to imagine that the Ping Pong Orchestra didn't perform many of these songs without a mild smirk across their faces. And if they hadn't, listeners will surely grin enough in enjoyment to amount for both sides.

Reviewed by Josh Zanger
Joshua Ian Zanger, a native of rural Chicago, rocks many a world with his writing, style, and generally sweet aroma.

See other reviews by Josh Zanger



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