Her bright red lips are stretched wide in an exuberant smile, even while she sings. Periodically, she tosses her dark brown hair away from her face or adjusts a tassel on her dress and recovers without missing a beat. Swinging her arms gaily and swaying her body to match the tempo of her accompanying jazz instrumentals, Sara Niemietz is very comfortable onstage. Even more impressive, though, is the vintage-soul blend she boasts when singing. Her smooth-as-butter vocals carry prominent notes of nostalgia from a time long past—when well-trained, ’60s-era chanteuses stole the spotlight in popular culture and at clubs across the nation.
She’s got all the talent, charisma, and stage presence of the archetypal jazz vocalist that music lovers yearn for from the old days. Her bravado and passionate vocal riffs collide to create a vivid image of the music industry when blues-rock and big hair were all the rage.
Except she’s only 24, and the aforementioned beautiful song she sings is merely a re-imagined, vintage-tinged rendition of Outkast’s chaotic funk hit, “Hey Ya.” Go figure.
While Niemietz’s inventive cover might be a three-minute masterpiece, it’s also just one of the many tracks reimagined and fine-tuned by Scott Bradlee’s quirky parody band, Postmodern Jukebox. Featuring an ever-rotating cast of lead vocalists, backup singers, and seasoned musicians, the band injects a healthy dose of vintage charm into contemporary pop hits released by some of today’s biggest stars. The brilliant irony of it all is how the new songs are given a fresh and exciting makeover simply by slowing the tempo, tossing in some old-time brassy beats, and avoiding autotune altogether. Most of the time, I’ve found, PMJ makes mediocre songs sound amazing and great songs even better than before.
Since the birth of this vintage-soul group in 2011, PMJ has tackled prominent songs from a host of different artists spanning virtually all genres. Miley Cyrus’s in-your-face “We Can’t Stop” drips defiance and rebellion in its original version. In PMJ’s remake, these sounds are subdued, the song seemingly pulled straight out of a 1920s speakeasy. The band’s bouncy version of “Thrift Shop” sounds more like a spunky, early ’20s tune and less like the iconic hit from dynamic hip-hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Even Ginuwine’s raunchy “Pony” boasts an appealing, old-timey aesthetic. And those aren’t even the best covers—see any PMJ song featuring Haley Reinhart for reference.
As far as song covers go, I’ve never really preferred them to the originals. Something about the idea of unnecessarily messing with a good thing or fixing something that ain’t broke just rubbed me the wrong way. For instance, I’ve yet to find a Garth Brooks cover that triumphs in style and quality over the original. Show me a recent rendition of “Uptown Girl,” and I’ll bet you the guy has nothing on my old friend Billy. Don’t get me wrong, I would always be open to listening to covers—I just wouldn’t gravitate toward that kind of thing.
Now, PMJ’s quirky concept—propelling pop hits of today into the past, decades before the singers themselves were even born—has provided me with an entirely new outlook on the art of creating song covers. The challenge of totally re-configuring a song, breaking down its instrumental backbone, and generating an entirely new set of instrumentals inspired by early music genres is truly something to be in awe of. And while most cover artists may not go to these lengths to make someone else’s song their own, the magnitude of such a daunting undertaking remains.
The remaking and rebooting of an original art piece always has its risks—look at Grease 2 or Steve Martin and Beyonce’s Pink Panther, if you don’t believe me. This time around, though, Scott Bradlee and his band of merry musicians have done something virtually unthinkable. These copycats are better than the originals. And for that, this kooky cover band deserves a listen.
And another, and another….
Featured Image By Mud Hut Digital