Album Review: Portland Cello Project – Homage


Portland Cello Project is not a novelty, although they can come dangerously close sometimes. A rotating cast of cellists, winds, brass, and percussion, the PCP are part of the new vanguard of classical performers who combine Beethoven with contemporary composers like Arvo Pärt and pop arrangements (think Britney Spears’ “Toxic” for eight cellos).

In the live setting, they can blow you away. Their repertoire, comprising over 900 pieces, includes thoughtful and creative re-interpretations of pop songs – just marvel at the raw awesomeness of cellos rocking out on Pantera’s “Mouth for War”Homage is a collection of hip-hop arrangements, including covers of Lil’ Wayne, Kanye West, and Outkast. Yet too often, these versions just fall flat.

The PCP version of “Hey Ya!” is a perfect example of a cover that comes up short. Every note of Andre 3000’s vocal line, bass, and background harmony is played on the cello; you could just sing right along. The drums are a simplistic and flaccid imitation of the original, and a trumpet plays the chorus counter melody. PCP could have introduced some creative license here: Witness Matt Haimovitz’s cello percussion on his version of Zeppelin’s ”Kashmir“.

The best moments on Homage are the two tracks where PCP completely reinterprets their hip-hop source material, bringing it into their own classical music language. The main melody and bass line from Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” get treated to a polyphonic canon technique, and there’s even a little percussion on their cellos. Equally rad is their treatment of Kayne West’s “Monster”, turning the basic melody line into a fugue subject.

Truly great cover songs should be appealing in their own right. Mostly, Homage consists of flabby arrangements, and other than the novelty factor, there’s little reason to choose any of these versions over the original. No doubt, the energy of hearing an arrangement of Talib Kweli’s “Get By” live is another story, especially when juxtaposed with traditional and contemporary classical music. But the world doesn’t need another orchestral tribute to hip-hop on record.

Essential Tracks: “Canon on a Lollipopalicious Theme”, and “Fugue on a Monstrous Theme”