The Cradle Will Rock, to Metallica

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The comedy album of the year arrives in stores today, but don't bother looking for it alongside the Larry the Cable Guy and Dane Cook releases.

Instead, the CD will be filed under both "Metallica" and "children's music" -- and therein lies the punch line.

"Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions of Metallica" isn't really a comedy recording. But the concept is pretty hilarious: Take 11 songs by a heavy-metal band whose rage-filled music has been a soundtrack for disaffected and alienated young people for nearly 25 years, and turn them into gentle, lulling instrumentals for babies.

Behold the dulcet tones of Metallica, my sweet little cherub-rockers!

Out are the roaring guitars, pummeling drums and howling lyrics such as "pounding out aggression / turns into obsession / cannot kill the battery / cannot kill the family." In: glockenspiel, Mellotron, vibraphone and chimes.

If you listen closely enough, you might even hear the people behind the "Rockabye Baby" series laughing. They're totally in on the joke, which they plan on repeating often: Albums of lullabyzed Radiohead and Coldplay songs are also out today -- never mind that some of Coldplay's originals are already soporific. And many more will follow -- from Tool and Pink Floyd, both due next month, to Nirvana, the Pixies, Smashing Pumpkins and Queens of the Stone Age.

"I'm laughing the whole time; it's all tongue-in-cheek," says Michael Armstrong, who is producing and performing the albums -- a process that involves extracting the lyrics and musical teeth from the songs.

Says Valerie Aiello, executive producer of the series: "People keep saying that hard rock doesn't seem like a logical fit for lullabies, but we just never thought it would be weird. We just thought it would sound really nice and maybe a little bit cheeky."

The idea came in part from Queens of the Stone Age's 2005 album, "Lullabies to Paralyze," which really has nothing to do with lullabies. (It's dark, sludgy hard rock with titles including "Everybody Knows That You're Insane.") The idea soon led to the birth of a series whose concept seems wildly incongruous until you consider that even some lullaby standards have dark sides. Surely you recall that in "Rock-a-Bye Baby," the wind blows, the cradle rocks, the bough breaks and then down comes baby, cradle and all. Eek!

Musically, though, "Rock-a-Bye Baby" has nothing on "Rockabye Baby!," whose tunes could well scare the kids right out of their onesies. The recordings tend to sound like a first draft by Philip Glass or the theme to "American Beauty 2" (if not a more Muzaky "Tubular Bells"), but when the songs veer into the dark world of minor chords, the result can be downright creepy. Take the Tool album that's coming out next month: Aiello notes that some people think it sounds like the score to "The Omen."

Perhaps Metallica's James Hetfield was on to something when, in the original, pre-instrumental version of "Enter Sandman," he advised: "Sleep with one eye open / Gripping your pillow tight."

"It was tough to make some of these bands not sound scary," says Armstrong, who, like Aiello, has no children. "And I guess I secretly wanted them to be scary. They got toned down a lot through editing, but it's really hard to remove the sentiment of the music. The tone is in the notes and the chords. Like Tool, you can transcribe it and play it a million different ways, but it still feels kind of heavy and brooding and mean."

Attempts to obtain comment/reaction/parenting advice from members of -- and reps for -- Metallica, Coldplay, Radiohead and Tool went nowhere.

The albums are being released by Baby Rock Records, a newborn label that's part of the CMH Records family. Among Baby Rock's siblings is Vitamin Records, which has released a series of string quartet and choral tributes to artists including Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Metallica, Tool and Mariah Carey.

How well the Rockabye Baby series will do is anybody's guess. There's no real marketing budget for the albums, Aiello says. And it's not as though there's huge, pent-up demand for a glockenspiel-driven versions of "Fade to Black" and "Paranoid Android." Then again, children's music is among the recording industry's fastest-growing categories.

"The albums are for the ultimate Metallica or Tool or Nirvana fans, to introduce their favorite music to their babies," Aiello says.

Unless, that is, their favorite music didn't make the cut: Armstrong admits that he actually recorded a lullabyzed version of Nirvana's "Rape Me" without considering the context. "Awesome song," Aiello says, "but there's no way it's going on the album." No kidding.

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