Although the folks at Disney initially resisted Tim Burton’s cheerfully demented vision for their animated feature The Nightmare Before Christmas, they came around quick when it exploded into a major franchise – boosted in no small part by the growing Goth subculture, which embraced the movie’s visuals and cheerfully morbid characters, and particularly the ingenious score by Burton’s go-to composer Danny Elfman.
That culture has since risen from the tomb with plenty of cash in their black PVC pockets, and Disney has profited handsomely as a result, with tons of merchandise and other tie-ins. But the music is arguably the strongest focal point for the film’s popularity, and aside from a recent double-CD remastered release, it’s mostly been coasting on its own cult popularity for 15 years.
Well, the mouse moguls finally decided to remedy that situation by dipping yet again into the Nightmare well… and, thankfully, they’ve come up with a pretty refreshing musical reboot in the form of Nightmare Revisited – a collection of unique and quirky reinterpretations of the entire Elfman score by a wide assortment of both indie and mainstream artists… many of which you’d be surprised to find participating in such inherently Gothy source material.
Not that the usual suspects aren’t in attendance… I mean, I’d actually be stunned if Marilyn Manson hadn’t come aboard. “This Is Halloween” couldn’t be more suited to Manson’s style and persona if he’d written it himself, and the ghoulish harmonies actually make the playful lyrics frightening. It works, in a totally wrong kind of way – which I’d say is the essence of his act.
Of course, Amy Lee of Evanescence comes to the party too – but frankly her Goth-femo cred isn’t ideal for “Sally’s Song.” She hits the mark nicely at the beginning, capturing the wistful, childlike delivery of the original, only to erase it completely by the second verse with her usual showboating.
The presence of drop-tuned demons Korn is no surprise either. Jonathan Davis puts his goofa mask on for a wild rendition of “Kidnap the Sandy Claws” that twists the wicked glee of the film’s villains until they sound like serial killers. The guys sound like they’re having the time of their lives here, and this one has solid re-playability.
Now onto the not-so-expected surprises, many of which really make this a must-have CD for originality alone. The always bizarre (and usually fun) Polyphonic Spree kick out the jams for “Town Meeting Song” – imagine a Halloween rock opera performed by an Aladdin Sane-era David Bowie and you’ve got it; Sparklehorse performs “Jack’s Obsession” as a light acoustic ballad, but Mark Linkous’ falsetto vocal always makes me giggle thanks to its resemblance to Flight of the Conchords… I know that’s probably not what he had in mind, but there you have it.
“Jack’s Lament” actually fits well into the wry indie-rock mold employed by the All-American Rejects, while the mandolin-filled “Poor Jack” by Plain White T’s recaptures the softer side Elfman’s operatic flair. But my hands-down favorite on this disc comes from Goth-electro fiends Shiny Toy Guns, who rip into the Finale with terrifying and maniacal relish and genuine beauty, demonstrating their multi-faceted skills. It’s only a shame their song is so brief.
The only song that risks putting serious drag on the project is Flyleaf’s horrendous cover of “What’s This?” One of the most recognizable songs from the film (even to those who haven’t even seen it), the original virtually explodes with excitement thanks to Elfman’s breathless delivery. In Flyleaf’s hands, that naïve energy is completely gone, replaced by a generic and bland pop-metal treatment that sounds like just about everything else you’d hear on mainstream rock radio these days.
The non-vocal tracks also really grabbed my attention here, often with more character than their sung counterparts. Elfman reworks the narrated opening and closing themes with his usual flair, but some very interesting guests really shine with the remaining instrumentals.
On the acoustic side, DeVotchKa infuse the Overture with the feel of Russian folklore, the Vitamin String Quartet handle “Jack and Sally Montage” with punchy style, and Rodrigo y Gabriela put a speedy flamenco twist on “Oogie Boogie’s Song.” Pure electronics come into play on RJD2’s “Christmas Eve Montage” and Datarock’s “To the Rescue.” Scoring big points for pure originality is Yoshida Brothers’ up-tempo Asian Fusion approach to “Nabbed.”
For all these eccentricities alone, this album’s a keeper. Elfman’s songwriting is brilliant, and would be entertaining in almost any format, even if just performed on a small club stage by a talented singer with a piano or acoustic guitar. With this strong foundation in place, it was smart to round up a lot of independent, sometimes even obscure artists with distinct and unique styles (for the most part) to take a shot at the songs.
It’s kind of like those identical Halloween masks that different artists paint and auction off for charity – each painter uses the same foundation, but the colors and patterns are unique to each artist’s character. There’s certainly a lot of wild and weird characters on parade here – and isn’t that what Halloween’s all about?