Out of the Glovebox: Sludgefest

Have you ever imagined what Alvin & The Chipmunks would sound like at normal speed? Or, what about, even slower? Well, so did someone else, and now you can listen to it too. On several music listening platforms such as Bandcamp, SoundCloud and Youtube, there is an artist known simply as “Chipmunks On 16 Speed” with three albums of slowed-down Chipmunk material.

“Sludgefest” is the name of this decelerated collection of tracks compiled from two albums by “The Chipmunks,” a band of popular animated chipmunks “Alvin, Simon and Theodore,” or better known as “Alvin & The Chipmunks.” The tracklist includes songs from several “The Chipmunks” albums, most notably “The Chipmunks and The Chipettes: Born to Rock” and “Chipmunk Punk” released in 1988 and 1980 respectively. 

“Sludgefest” is collected into two volumes of 12 songs each and alters them all down to a uniform 16 RPM (revolutions-per-minute) slower speed which produces a dark, grunge sound. Hence, the name. What was once a bunch of cheaply produced covers of new-wave pop songs with adult voices sped up on the vocals, is now an enthralling work of real punk music.

The irony is, that while this all seems like a meme (which it is), “Sludgefest” finally redeems the failure of the original “Chipmunk Punk” by transforming it from a cheap, commercial quick-buck, into an album that is alternative, explorative and truly punk in spirit. The original is the 80s equivalent of something like “KIDZ BOP 13.”  

Yes, this is probably pretty silly, but stay with me. Ok, so what’s so crazy about slowing down “Chipmunk” songs? Anyone can speed up or slow down any of the music they want, what’s so different? The track list. 

Instead of simply reproducing a track list, a human being tailored these songs to play in a specific order. Is there a meaning there? Why didn’t they just copy a single album, track-for-track, slow it down, post it online and get lols? 

The truth in all this lies in the mind of Brian Borcherdt, a Canadian musician credited with creating this opus. Borcherdt, an experimental musician, came up with the idea when he was on tour in 2004 and traveled with a portable turntable. When he wasn’t performing, Borcherdt would experiment with playing records backwards, slowly, sped-up, until he fell upon “Chipmunk Punk.”  

According to an interview with “now.” a Toronto-based magazine, Borcherdt said, “it’s funny, but it’s also heavy, and it sounds beautiful. It makes you rethink the process involved, but there’s also just something poetic about it. Music is such an exploration of time, and it’s interesting the way you can manipulate that and change the intention.” 

So what does it actually sound like? The opening track of Volume One is a cover of Blondie’s hit “Call Me.” The once bright and spunky guitars have been replaced with walls of sonic dredge; the elevated low-end of the guitar strums washes out the springy synths and lead guitars to leave behind only a heavy, meaty texture for listeners to soak in. Alvin’s voice becomes hauntingly monotone; it sounds as if Joy Division had a reunion concert featuring Nick Cave on vocals.  

The following track is the love-it-or-hate-it, “Walk Like An Egyptian.” This track feels very new-wave, with the layers of reverberating percussion, the unrelenting sleigh bells and the never ending drone of a muted guitar rhythm; it would fit right in on Tears For Fears’ “Songs From The Big Chair.” 

The third track is a ballad-like rendition of “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” by Belinda Carlisle. What once sounded like a precursor to Cascada (y’all remember that “Everytime We Touch” song) is now a pleading and desperate call for a missing lover. All those sped up Chipmunk melodies are now nice and slow and appreciable in all their harmonizing glory.

“You Keep Me Hanging On” is another highlight of the project, the once dizzy-synth, big hair-anthem is now a ghoulish, macabre cry from a deranged sounding lover; it’s as if it’s being sung to by Frankenstein’s monster.

Volume Two doesn’t stand as strong despite also consisting primarily of 80s pop music. The tracks lack the same gross, low-end and the overall sound of the songs is a  little too clean. Tracks like “Refugee” and “The Diamond Ring” stay in that overprocessed, microwaved-in-a-bucket-of-butter style, but the rest of the tracklist sounds like slow tempo songs without a lot of additional character.

Listening to “Sludgefest,” I start to question how different the musical landscape would have been if Alvin and his brothers got their act together and stopped playing in their child-audience comfort zone. After nearly 70 years together, the band’s greatest success was their chart-topping Christmas album, and like Michael Buble, they sort of peaked there. 

Would popular new wave bands have been able to compete with a trio of hard working chipmunks in their prime? If they really had a chance to stretch their legs and experiment, could they have wiped Nirvana off the map? At least we have “Sludgefest,” a celebration of what might have been.