I expected Uncovered, cellist Maya Beiser‘s album of rock and blues classics, to be one of those gimmicky, uninspired classical/rock crossover projects that classical musicians sometimes undertake in search of notability and marketability. I’ve heard quite a few of those over the years.
But Uncovered, her new Innova Recordings release, feels more authentic and therefore proves more stirring than most crossover albums. Accompanied mostly just by bass and drums, and teamed with arranger Evan Ziporyn, Beiser takes songs made famous by Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd, Muddy Waters and others and uses her bow to tear off the calcified coating built up over this music through years of classic-rock radio play and bar-band covers, “uncovering” these well-known cover songs and re-imagining them with energy and originality.
Using electronic effects Beiser can make her cello sound like the electric guitars that bedrock the original versions of these songs. But it’s the overall sonic universe, not any specific sounds, that gives her production its uniqueness. A pre-eminent example is the lengthy introductory section of “Wish You Were Here.” Pink Floyd’s original opens with swooshes of white noise. Beiser and Ziporyn re-imagine this as a rich orchestral wash so absorbing that when the cello finally introduces the familiar melody the recognition comes as a pleasant shock.
But the high point for me is a darkly atmospheric take on the King Crimson classic “Epitaph,” a relatively obscure choice but one of the most inspired too. To this listener, at least, the words of this too-often forgotten classic were always much less important than the insistent tension in its chord structure. Beiser turns it into something almost pre-classical, a canon perhaps.
By its nature, the whole project raises the question of whether the underlying songs stand up as wordless constructs of chords, melody and rhythm. To put it another way, will someone who doesn’t know the original material enjoy and appreciate this music? On some of the tracks, the cellist makes a better case than on others.
AC/DC’s “Back in Black” with its hammer-like rhythms and wailing “guitar” solo sounds forceful and magnetic. Led Zeppelin translates well too: The atmosphere and sonic crush of the symphonic “Kashmir” were already more important than the words and vocals, and the riff-heavy “Black Dog” churns with all the necessary rock energy (aided by Beiser gently speaking some of the words, in faintly sinister tones).
Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” is typically done as an instrumental anyway. The cellist’s take is an excellent entry in a long line of interpretations of the classic.
Janis Joplin’s titanic version of “Summertime” sails through on Beiser’s four strings with lots of emotion too. Of course, it’s not a rock song at all but a jazzy pre-rock standard.
Muddy Waters’s “Louisiana Blues” and Nirvana’s “Lithium” fare less well, the former because of its repetitive simplicity, the latter because in spite of its inspired melody it loses a whole dimension without Kurt Cobain’s howl.
Nonetheless, altogether these “uncoverings” add up to an exceptional mix of elemental energy and tasteful musical originality, with many high points. Some crossover artists, 2Cellos for example, define themselves by performing popular songs, and that’s what they’re all about. Maya Beiser by contrast is at the peak of an eclectic career in which Uncovered is just one of a string of varied projects. She and Ziporyn both, for example, are former members of the celebrated contemporary music ensemble the Bang on a Can All-Stars.
Beiser is one of those “classical” artists – Matt Haimovitz is another – who are expanding the audience for classical and other “serious” music by embracing pop culture with eyes and spirit wide open, not looking down on anything or anyone. With Uncovered she takes a serious journey into the heart of serious rock, and we’re the beneficiaries.