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Bargain Bin: Hugo Montenegro: Rocket Man (A Tribute to Elton John)

Bargain Bin: Hugo Montenegro: Rocket Man (A Tribute to Elton John)

A fine way to hear John’s ’70s work in a new and unique way, schmaltz and all.

It’s no secret that there is an extreme overabundance of so-called easy listening albums cluttering up countless thrift shops and record store dollar bins across the country. From Mantovani to Herb Alpert to Percy Faith and all points in between, these albums are readily accessible to most everyone. So much so that, as I near my third decade of record collecting, I’ve learned that should anyone offer you something from their record collection, you’re best served to politely decline unless you want another copy of Whipped Cream & Other Delights or early Barbra Streisand records. In other words, just because someone has accumulated a collection of records doesn’t necessarily ensure it even deserves to be thought of as a true record collection. You might as well be hoarding stacks of old newspapers.

Of course, there are the occasional easy listening albums that at least give off the impression of being interesting, either through the cover art, personnel or song selections—check out Bing Crosby’s Hey Jude/Hey Bing! for a fine example of this. As a collector and consumer of pop culture in general and popular music specifically, you begin to accumulate a mental rolodex of names worth remembering. Perhaps they’re better known for some early work or oddball, left-field crate digger’s wet dream. There are myriad reasons for this line of thinking, but for this particular instance we’ll stick with the name recognition: Hugo Montenegro.

To those unfamiliar, Montenegro was a band leader, conductor, composer and shameless cover artist. On his albums, you will find a host of strange and unusual covers of then contemporary pop hits, the majority vastly watered down for consumption by the adult market. Montenegro made a name for himself in the mid-‘60s with albums like Original Music From the Man From U.N.C.L.E., which consisted of cover versions of spy soundtrack staples and several collaborations with Clint Eastwood that resulted in commercially successful albums of Ennio Morricone covers.

Why then is Montenegro given a pass? Much of it has to do with his 1969 album Moog Power. It seems nearly any early adopter of the Moog has been forgiven any and all other potential musical atrocities past, present and future. There is nothing particularly revelatory about Moog Power—it offers a number of contemporary pop hits rendered in space-agey Moog arrangements—but the use of the Moog, coupled with the out-there cover art, helped make it an album of note.

Having succeeded as a cover artist, Montenegro spent much of the next decade taking on the likes of the Beach Boys, Neil Diamond and even Bob Dylan on the rather bizarre Hugo Montenegro’s Dawn of Dylan. It’s his 1975 release Rocket Man (A Tribute to Elton John) that strikes the avid consumer of liner notes and names of session players. The album cover’s passing resemblance to Michal Urbaniak’s Fusion III aside, Rocket Man’s rear sleeve contains an unprecedented lineup of session players, all of whom are granted an individual photograph next to a track listing that ranges from the title track to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” something of a fluke hit for John some eight years or so after the Beatles’ own version.

Below the requisite photo of Montenegro sits jazz guitarist extraordinaire Larry Carlton, Wrecking Crew mainstay and convicted murderer Jim Gordon on drums and legendary Motown bassist James Jamerson. Together, they make for a wicked rhythm section that anchors the whole affair, though Jamerson uncharacteristically stays away from his trademark style of playing. And while their straight covers are essentially just that, Montenegro—Hugo’s son John, that is—throws in a handful of originals designed to fit the theme. Opening track “Blastoff” is a frenetic blend of proto-disco and screaming synths battling over a charging rhythm track, driven largely by Gordon’s elephantine drumming.

This freneticism leads the listener to believe that the remainder of the album may well be in the same stylistic vein. And while there are certainly moments here and there, none are as declarative as “Blastoff.” From there, each becomes a fairly rote reading of well-known John hits: “Rocket Man,” “The Bitch Is Back,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” et. al. And while these tracks afford John’s often overlooked melodic gifts to shine throughout, they add little to the originals. In particular, the title track carries the stench of Muzak despite the band’s best efforts to the contrary. There’s only so much you can do with a straight reading of a well-known pop song.

That said, for what it is, Rocket Man (A Tribute to Elton John) is about as fine an example of this type of popsploitation you could hope to find. This is a fine way to hear John’s early-to-mid-‘70s work in a new and unique way, schmaltz and all.

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