*** 1/2 “STAY AWAKE.” Various artists. A&M.;
Whoever its target audience might be, “Stay Awake"--a collection of classic songs from Walt Disney movies redone by contemporary artists--is not for kids.
For one thing, the jazzier interpretations--including bits by Betty Carter and Sun Ra’s Arkestra--might well bore them. For another, some unsettling passages here might really scare the pants off the little tykes. “Snow White” was frightening enough, but hearing Tom Waits distantly growl the work anthem “Heigh Ho” as if on a coal-mine train ride through Hades? Now that’s the stuff nightmares are made of!
Amazingly, producer Hal Willner’s 21-song, hour-plus opus delirium has captured both the sweetness-and-light and the terrifying darkness inhabiting the best of Disney’s animated films--and found magic in both. This is best exemplified by the grave yet wondrous passages from “Pinocchio” that bookcase the album; it’s music that exists in an enticing dream state, all the while reminding you that none of the little donkey-boys except Pinocchio himself ever did get turned back into humans again.
It’s not all so ominous--not with Bonnie Raitt as Dumbo’s devoted mom; Aaron Neville giving the ballad treatment to “The Mickey Mouse Theme” (!); Los Lobos--in the LP’s most perfect pairing--going tropical with “I Wanna Be Like You (The Monkey Song)"; and Ringo Starr following a disturbing, climactic “Pinocchio” passage with the closing “When You Wish Upon a Star,” just as he came in after “Revolution 9" to soothe us with “Good Night” once upon a time.
Occasionally the ideas behind the pairings seem more important than the performances. It’s high concept to have Suzanne Vega do the title song in the monotone of a “Nightmare on Elm Street” survivor, or the usually anti-romantic Sinead O’Connor sing a stark “Someday My Prince Will Come,” or the Replacements do a sloppy rock knock-off of “Cruella De Ville.” Ideas count almost as much as the music in a project like this, though. Just as Disney’s imagination ran wild, so has Willner’s.