Danny Elfman is one of the greatest composers of our time along with John Williams and Hans Zimmer. Celebrated largely as Tim Burton's musical right hand for many years now, people tend to forget Elfman was the giddy, eyes-shifting master emcee in front of Oingo Boingo. A crafty, slinky gaze Elfman had in Boingo, which left the impression he favored macabre gallows humor. By now we know that to be truth.
A gross percentage of those who do remember Boingo only know "Weird Science" and "Dead Man's Party." Sad, considering Oingo Boingo wrote a considerable number of fun-filled, frolicking horror-tinged jams. "No One Lives Forever" should be heralded for jacking up the scene where Leatherface torments a pair of hellraising frat boys on a bloody bridge to doom in Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. The two components were made for each other, as the horn section in Boingo accelerated ol' Bubba's chainsaw screeching against car metal, plus the pulpy screams of the fratheads while DJ Stretch records all of it in a paralyzed stupor. Timeless stuff.
"No Spill Blood," "Insanity," "Skin," "Pain," "Spider," "Flesh 'n Blood," "Grey Matter," "Nasty Habits" and "Insects" are all other Boingo boppers leading to Elfman's future in fugue. He's since scored some of Burton's most successful films including Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd and of course, The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Despite a continued flourishment in composing film music, Nightmare remains Elfman's personal masterpiece to this point. From the orchestration to the brilliant lyrics spinning the tale of our beloved Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington, Elfman's music bringing The Nightmare Before Christmas to life stands as a cinematic and aural triumph. It is ageless though well of its moment in 1993. Nothing like The Nightmare Before Christmas had been delivered despite Rankin Bass' best efforts, and even though Burton's The Corpse Bride is up to the task, both he and Elfman were in a zone with Nightmare.
Two years ago, Disney opted to celebrate the 15th anniversary of The Nightmare Before Christmas by issuing Nightmare Revisited, one of the coolest recordings to emerge under their imprint. It's not just the fact Nightmare Revisited boasts some loudness with Korn, Flyleaf, Marilyn Manson and Rise Against. It's the fact nearly every artist coming to this project does Elfman's music justice with new twists, re-imagined arrangements and full-on bravado to create an altogether new listening experience.
These are songs ingrained upon fans of the film and Danny Elfman, be it the unnerving imp-shriek on "Kidnap the Sandy Claws" to the woeful melancholy exposed on "Jack's Lament." Of course, the film's signature song is the delightful exposition song "What's This?" where Jack Skellington finds himself in a new world and discovering it with the same inquisitiveness and excitement as a child. To hear Elfman chant "What's This?" like he's emerged from the forest and seen snow for the very first time (as Skellington does in the movie), you buy into the concept that ugliness can be swept into the light and gads, it just be neat...at least for a few moments, anyway.
On Nightmare Revisited, Flyleaf inherits Elfman's coveted joy of discovery ode. An uneviable task for most bands. Screw this one up, you've embarassed a master and the entire venture is for naught. You get the impression, though, Danny Elfman might've wept quietly in a closet while hearing the playbacks on Nightmare Revisited, in particular Flyleaf's riveting take on "What's This?" They summon the courage to play it downtempo instead of spritely, more Goth instead of happy-go-lucky. Some people may take offense by Flyleaf's morose interpretation, but stick with it, because Lacey Mosley knocks out a home run once she reaches her crescendos and dammit, you feel even sorrier for Skellington than before with Mosley's passionate wallowing.
Even if Korn's "Kidnap the Sandy Klaws" is delivered like a predictable Korn chunk and spew and Sparklehorse dips into a shaky Prince tribute (Parade era) with "Jack's Obsession," Nightmare Revisited transcends the moment and its artists deliver far more than what's expected of them.
The most stellar performance goes to The Polyphonic Spree with their mini-epic extension of "Town Meeting Song." Metalheads are going to automatically think this is Bigelf performing until you check the credits and realize what a titanic overture The Polyphonic Spree has created in salute to Elfman. They weave a seventies rockcapade with shades of Elton John at his best and Queen, not to mention Alice Cooper and Pink Floyd. Incredible. If the man is capable of tears, undoubtedly Elfman's beady eyes were flooded with this astounding seven-plus-minute re-imagination.
The Vitamin String Quartet follows Polyphonic Spree with the gorgeous chamber instrumental "Jack and Sally Montage." This is Halloween, even if Marilyn Manson gets dibs on the actual song. Manson cuts "This is Halloween" in a heavy thread, yet if you listen deeply, he's tipping a ghoulish brow to Elfman by doing it precisely as if Oingo Boingo had recorded it, minus the brass section. Salud.
The always-interesting Devotchka opens up Nightmare Revisited with a Fiddler On the Roof-splashed polka mindset to "Overture," while Elfman himself graces the project with bookend narration. Sweeter that he first appears after Devotchka instead of before. Automatically you know Nightmare Revisited is skipping convention.
Surprisingly, the pop punkers on Nightmare Revisited show their moxy and bang out some great tunes. Plain White T's are fabulous with "Poor Jack," while The All-American Rejects get the listener into the proper mindframe with "Jack's Lament." Both bands treat Skellington's befuddled musings with dignity and bring zero emo into their work. Jack Skellington is an emotional character, but since the term "emo" has been redefined since the days of Rites of Spring and Dag Nasty, it's highly appropriate Plain White T's and The All-American Rejects sink themselves into the character and hoist the Pumpkin King's crown on-high. Meanwhile, Rise Against plays to their own strengths on "Making Christmas" and its inherent agitation and picked-up speed works like a charm.
The Yoshida Brothers really take the cake on "Nabbed" by fusing traditional Japanese strings with warbled electro fusion and even if it could've been trimmed by a minute, it throws you on a strange pillow to be assaulted immediately by the stirring flamenco of Rodrigo y Gabriela's "Oogie Boogie's Song." You won't ever view Oogie the same way, believe me.
Amy Lee also soars with "Sally's Song" and by the time Shiny Toy Guns weaves Nightmare Revisited to a drafty quietus, if you're not impressed by the ensemble brought into action for this operation, then go dive into Elfman's original score.
Most of these types of enterprises should be approached cautiously because you don't necessarily know if their hearts are in the right places or if there's a commodity-mindedness at work. Nightmare Revisited hardly moos; in fact, it whispers as much as it howls. No Mickey Mouse hot dog dancing at work here. Nightmare Revisited is carefully constructed and reverential of its original source. This album is reflective of Danny Elfman's genius in the manner these songs can be rethought as vibrantly as they are. If you're looking for a good Halloween alternative to the usual monster mashes, this is a hell of a stopover.
And Danny, if you're reading this, PLEASE reform Boingo!!!