It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Mitch Miller, the bandleader whose be-sweatered male chorus provided the soundtrack for many a family get-together over the years. We figured he’d simply hung up his baton after 1970’s Peace Sing-a-long, an embarrassing attempt to connect with the younger generation. But it turns out he was simply looking for a new way to share his latest love: prog rock. Apparently, Mitch was dragged to a Gentle Giant concert by his step-nephew and, to his great surprise, and fell in love with the genre’s mix of musicianship and orchestral influences.
Now Miller’s back with Prog-a-long with Mitch, an ambitious but ultimately flawed project in which his reach far exceeds his grasp. Miller seems to have overestimated his audience’s stamina by producing the world’s first sing-a-long triple album. If any listeners actually do want to sing-a-long, they had better know the words already, since Miller eschewed a lyric sheet in favor of gatefold Roger Dean poster featuring Mitch himself riding a dragon over a terraformed moonscape.
The main issue is that Miller seems at odds with himself. He has a genuine love of prog, but still falls back on the same down-home techniques that sold so many sing-a-long LPs to Middle America in the early 1960s. The result is a bizarre clash of styles every bit as jarring as Trout Mask Replica (three tracks of which are covered here, all to ill affect; “Dachau Blues” is particularly clunky).
The album starts off promising with a rousing rendition of the Yes classic, “Roundabout,” the trademark Mitch Miller unison “bass” sound providing an interesting contrast to Jon Anderson’s vocals on the original. However, Miller miscalculates by casting the background music in a Dixieland arrangement and asking a banjo to mimic Rick Wakeman’s organ line. A rendition of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” suffers from similar ill-fated instrumentation, as Robert Fripp’s guitar is substituted for a Wurlitzer organ and 27 tambourines. And his version of the The Mothers of Invention’s “Electric Aunt Jemima” manages to be even weirder than the original by substituting Frank Zappa’s sped-up-tape techniques with a Moog and slide whistle.
The rest of the collection exhibits some of the worst excesses of the genre, such as dedicating an entire side to the title track from Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Tarkus, or making the curious decision to cover Can’s “Mushroom” as a country hoedown number. Miller seems bent on self-sabotage, as even the better performed tracks contain glaring flaws. His otherwise perfect rendition of Van Der Graaf Generator’s “Darkness” is marred by Miller repeatedly intoning the corny punchline, “Anybody got a flashlight?”
The set ends on an odd note, as a polka version of Rush’s “Working Man” is followed by a straightforward rendition of the old Mitch standby “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?” I suppose Miller is to be commended for his willingness to fail, though he’d have been better off recording this material for his own amusement, rather than subject the world to a ragtime take on Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe, Eugene.”
For all this, however, Miller’s effort still not as awful as last year’s Lawrence Welk’s Champagne Glam.