Two years in the making, Subterranean Shakespeare Records is finally ready to release their CD, “Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits.” But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill compilation of Shakespeare’s songs. Not a lute to be heard, if you can believe that. “Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits” includes a bevy of artists from an array of backgrounds, adding a little of this and a little of that, some spice, some sweet, and sometimes a little bit of sour, stirring up one heck of a mouthful of music.
No matter what your taste, unless of course it’s Elizabethan lute music, you’re bound to find it here. You’re even likely to acquire new tastes along the way. This compilation tests some boundaries, but it’s the experimental and more daring pieces that have the greatest impact. Notable is “Gods of Raw” (the libretto recalling the downward spiral of King Richard II), a hot mix of electronica and dance music by Zen Continuum with Rob Strange on guitar. The song begins somewhat Radioheadesque, with vague echoes of “OK Computer’s” “Electioneering,” before journeying into an underground dance club beat. “Loath and Depart/Please One Please All” features the bass beatbox vocal of Syzygy, proving to me yet again—as I reminisce on San Francisco's Intersection For the Arts’ 2006 production of Hamlet: Blood in the Brain—that Shakespeare and rap can go hand in hand.
A good deal of this CD will appeal to both the Shakespeare connoisseur and the music lover who might not recognize a single line. Songs such as “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind,” with Matthew Perifano on guitar and vocals, and “Where the Bee Sucks” (think Ariel from The Tempest and then add a happy banjo and a pastoral feel), with Hal Hughes on vocal and banjo, provide a bit of simplicity in the midst of an eclectic mix. There is also a fair amount of folk music here, and although it seems to be the weakest link, it’s songs like the ‘let’s sing ‘round the campfire’ version of Ophelia’s madness, “Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day,” with Cindy Weyuker singing and playing the saw (yep, that’s right—the saw), or The Rude Mechanicals’ Midsummer lullaby “You Spotted Snakes” that leave you with one heck of an earworm.
The Rude Mechanicals’ dramatic deathrock meets Jim Morrison arrangement, “O Death, Rock Me Asleep,” featuring the sometimes impressive, sometimes depressive vocal range of Geoffrey Pond, may leave you feeling as unsettled as Anne Boleyn the night before her date with the executioner, but then, perhaps deathrock is your particular taste. Also unsettling, but in a good way, is the most bizarre conjuring of GP Skratz, performing “Double Double Toil and Trouble,” a “montage of 19th Century German translations” of the Weird Sisters’ cauldron cackling. Skratz’ deep, growling, sinister voice has a Scottish edge as he conjures in German. And to make things even more interesting, Skratz is accompanied by a Philippine gong, a sitar, seed rattles, and a tanpura.
Some of the vocals are outdone by the music; such is the case with the ethereal song “Full Fathom Five” and the folk rock madness of “Tom a Bedlam.” But I have love for poor Tom, especially after seeing The Rude Mechanicals perform this piece at this year’s San Francisco Theatre Festival in July ’07. After watching Michael Rossman dance ‘round the stage on dirty toes like Mad Maudlin, I will forever see Rossman and Tom as one in the same.
And there’s so much more than just this. There are sonnets that speak of lust; you’ll hear Lear singin’ the blues, and you’ll find a gem in the ghostly compilation of some of the world’s greatest Shakespearean actors (Orson Welles, John Gielgud, John Barrymore, and oddly missing Sir Laurence Olivier), delivering their lines to the lovely piano accompaniment of Chetana Karel. Lust and Love, Carefree and Longing, Madness, Death, Freedom, Repression, Sadness and Dreams. If Bloom can say that Shakespeare invented the human, then Subterranean Shakespeare can be said to have invented the tribute to the humanness of Shakespeare’s songs, and in this humanness, you’re sure to find a bit of yourself.
“Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits,” produced by Subterranean Shakespeare Records, can be purchased at major music stores, or by going to www.cdbaby.com. Full lyrics and music samples can be experienced at www.myspace.com/subshakes.