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John Hollenbeck: Songs We Like a Lot

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Songs I Like a Lot was one of 2013’s best records and one of the most majestic albums of the 21st century. Arranger and bandleader John Hollenbeck nearly created an entirely new genre by blending big-band music and pop songs with modern classical sensibilities, oddball vocal arrangements and cinematic sweep. Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” and “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” never sounded so gorgeous. The whole album was experimental, quirky and phenomenally enjoyable.

The sequel, Songs We Like a Lot, is only experimental and quirky. Hollenbeck applies the same concept to another seven songs but comes up with an unlistenable mess. Novelty becomes cliché, and the album winds up feeling like a collection of rejects-or maybe parodies-from the initial session.

Most of the same characters return, including the Frankfurt Radio Big Band with vocalists Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry; the difference is that Uri Caine replaces Gary Versace on keyboards (except on one song). Six of the seven tracks run between seven and 12 minutes, and mostly they’re too long, growing monotonous and overbearing. The only short tune-if you want to call it a tune-is a ridiculous reworking of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” with lyrics performed in Russian by a computerized voice. You just want it to end.

Soft vibes introduce Pete Seeger’s “How Can I Keep From Singing,” as Hollenbeck monkeys with both the melody and the rhythm; the busy arrangement intertwines McGarry’s and Bleckmann’s vocals, but it turns into a showtune nightmare. A minimalist arrangement of the Cyndi Lauper hit “True Colors” is completely unrecognizable but for the over-the-top, lily-gilding finale that arrives after nearly 10 minutes of nerve-jabbing pizzicato piano and percussion. Hollenbeck sets a Rumi poem, delivered by McGarry as spoken word, to music for “Constant Conversation,” whose Middle Eastern theme grows annoyingly repetitive.

McGarry’s attractive vocals save a cover of the Carpenters’ “Close to You,” but it too wears out its welcome. The grand finale, a version of the Fifth Dimension’s “Up, Up and Away” that has all the subtlety of a jackhammer, will send your pets running from the room. Unlike the masterpiece that preceded it, Songs We Like a Lot is overwrought and impressed with its own conceit. There’s such a thing as too much grandeur.

Originally Published