Old Songs, New Sounds: Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox

Scott Bradlee (center) is the mastermind behind Postmodern Jukebox. © Braverijah Gregg
Written by Érico Lotufo

By Erico Lotufo
BU News Service

As Melinda Doolittle sings Britney Spears’ “Toxic”, you can easily recognize something’s different. The song is arranged like a 30s-style Jazz tune and Doolittle hits the high notes that Britney could never reach. The result is fresh and fascinating. It’s the modus operandi of Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, coming to Boston’s Wang Theatre tonight.

PMJ (as fans know it) has been doing the “grab a song, arrange it in an old genre” formula for the past five years, achieving great success on YouTube and Spotify. What separates Scott Bradlee’s troupe from the thousands of cover artists on the web, however, are creative arrangements and the impressive wealth of talent attracted to the project, recruited from New York’s musical scene.

Bradlee understands what makes covers so compelling: with new arrangements, songs can reach a new meaning and a larger audience. It isn’t just a cover of Britney Spears’ Toxic, it’s something your parents, unknowingly listening to a pop song from the mid-2000s, would smugly suggest “Wow, they don’t make singers like this anymore.”

The performance in Boston comes right after the release of PMJ’s first “Greatest Hits” album. The Essentials, released on Sept. 30, collects 18 of the most popular songs from the band’s extensive collection of covers, all of them injected with their signature flair. Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” loses its melodrama and becomes a fun Jackie Wilson tribute in the voice of Mykal Kilgore; The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” guitar is replaced by brass instruments, while Haley Reinhart’s commanding voice carries the rest of the tune; and even Macklemore’s satirical “Thrift Shop” gains a 50s face-lift, courtesy of Robyn Adele Anderson.

While Bradlee’s presence as the ringleader gives him the spotlight, the true success doesn’t just come from his fresh arrangements, but the wealth of talent of each musician and singer brings life to his creations. Where there is potential, PMJ will tap into it: no wonder they actually recruited Puddles, who performs in a clown costume, to sing every once in a while.

PMJ is, however, still a collaborative effort. As such, many of the guest artists that went viral with the troupe don’t always accompany the tour. To make up for this, Scott Bradlee goes for the most immersive vintage experience possible: all performers dress to fit the retro esthetic. Caberet, vaudeville and 50s jukebox all blend in to make for a unique concert, and also make up for the absence of their most popular contributors (Haley Reinhart and Puddles are among those that have their own solo tours and thus are most likely to be MIA).

Puddles, even if he doesn’t show up in Boston, probably summarizes best how far PMJ has gone. The “sad clown with a golden voice” sings Twenty One Pilots’ Stressed Out” in their most recent album with new content and turns the millennial temper-tantrum of the original song into true angst and even some meta-commentary on the band. The chorus goes: “If we could turn back time?/To the good old days.” Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox is a new spin on the “good old days”. To him, the past is just as good as the present can make it be.

Tickets to tonight’s show at the Wang Theatre are still available here, starting at $39.50.

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