For the 2011 film The Muppets, our fine felted friends partnered with Disney, raising the question of and hope that the collaboration would usher in a new era of Muppets mania and a creative renaissance for the franchise. Arriving a few months ahead of the flick, Muppets: The Green Album rounded up alt-pop/rock hitmakers of the day to put a fresh spin on the Muppets songbook, offering mixed results and more queries about whether the gang could recapture the magic of decades past. Happily, the soundtrack to The Muppets thoughtfully blends reimagined classics with new tunes (and Muppet performances with live action singing, plus dialogue bits from the movie and a couple of classic non-Muppet radio hits), effectively reinvigorating the franchise for established fans and younger audiences alike. Much of the success of The Muppets' soundtrack can be attributed to Bret McKenzie, half of the musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, who penned the lion's share of the new compositions, skillfully interpreting the irreverence and emotional range that make the Muppets music of yore so enduring. He sets the stage with the buoyant, soaring opening and closing number "Life's a Happy Song," introducing listeners to Muppets fans Mary (Amy Adams) and Gary (Jason Segel), who travel to Los Angeles to try helping the troupe save their theater from oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). Alongside the track's guest performers Mickey Rooney and Feist, Adams is charming and whimsical, recalling her star turn in Disney fairy tale musical Enchanted, and Segel is unabashedly enthusiastic (befitting considering his role as composer of a puppet-driven musical in Forgetting Sarah Marshall). McKenzie also shines on "Me Party," a get-her-groove-back disco anthem in which Adams and (naturally!) Miss Piggy proclaim "one is the new two," and the moving Segel-centric tune "Man or Muppet". Similarly rewarding is new piece "Pictures in My Head", by Disney hitmakers Jeannie Lurie, Aris Archontis and Chen Neeman, finding Kermit the Frog reflecting on the state of affairs ("My green is feelin' gray/Sometimes even frogs have rainy days") in a ballad worthy to stand alongside "It's Not Easy Bein' Green" and "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday." The other factor that makes The Muppets such a treat is its ability to pack in tons of surprises without sacrificing narrative flow: eccentric indie singer/songwriter Joanna Newsom's divisively Muppet-esque vocals are right at home in a new recording of The Muppet Show theme; rough-edged Cooper plays a Yosemite Sam-Cowboy Troy hybrid on the swaggering, goofy rap "Let's Talk About Me"; Green Album favorite Andrew Bird returns with another carefree whistling session on "The Whistling Caruso"; and Muppet-ized takes on contemporary classics "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Forget You" are perfectly absurd but would make their original performers proud (and not make parents blush). In just 40 minutes, The Muppets offers all the silliness and sentimentality longtime fans have loved and new audiences will embrace, as smart as it is surprising. ~ Chrysta Cherrie
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