Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

Compilations of artists covering other artists thematically or conceptually are some of the very best and worst albums in our collections, aren't they? I never knew one could admit to liking The Carpenters till that one came out with Sonic Youth et al in the early 90s; actually, I didn't like The Carpenters until a bunch of respected alternative musicians covered 'em and sent me back to listen to the originals. 

That is the glorious thing about "tribute albums" when they work: You can find out just how time-lasting the original songs are, whether the anthology is made up of a selection of various songs (hits and otherwise) from a specific band, or as a devotion to a certain work or theme. The drawback is that enjoyment of covers can be a very subjective thing, depending on which musician is covered or covering (I love it when The Jam covered Motown songs; but Phil Collins' "You Can't Hurry Love," not so much). There's currently a Fleetwood Mac tribute out now that I haven't heard, but the reviews are sort of the same as they always tend to be: It's a nice collection of spot on and somewhat off.

"Always Indie" label American Laundromat Records put out a double CD (!) Smiths compilation earlier this year, and it finds its way into my stereo regularly. Please, Please, Please: A Tribute To The Smiths has gotten better-than-usual reviews, and for good reason: It's a class act, from the very complimentary packaging to the quality artists you could tell grew up spending warm summer days in-doors writing frightening verse to all four sides of Louder Than Bombs.

Yes, there have been a few Smiths tributes before this one (including a really horrible late 90s era emo-powered one from a certain otherwise excellent label that I could barely sit through once), but it's the selection of confident veterans like Tanya Donelly (with Dylan in the Movies) on "Shoplifters of the World Unite," besides crackling newcomers like Port Townsend's Solvents (who punk-folk a very delightful "Is It Really So Strange?" which is perfect for listening to with a knapsack of old literature and post-break up love letters as one travels across the Sound via ferry to find a horse to kill). The second disc is a lot stronger than the first for me, probably merely because it has the artists I'm most keen on here: Mike Viola (from the Candy Butchers, here with The Section Quartet) slowing "How Soon Is Now?" down to a cello-flecking heartbeat about to burst. Seattle's own Trespassers William takes "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" even lower and starker, and somehow makes you not pine for Andy Rourke's gorgeous bass on the original by offering up truly smoldering vocals. There's gobs of more goodness on both full-lengths though.

Coming out this summer is American Laudromat's A Tribute To Repo Man, a very rare case of an original soundtrack anthology being covered by a whole new set of bands. This is a choice idea, and I hope will encourage more creative thematic compilations than just bands covering other bands randomly. And the selections are passionately performed and respectfully executed and recorded all the way through, being a cohesive album listening experience, and not sounding like a patchwork homage.

I will  confess: I never owned the original Repo Man LP, as I had most of the songs I wanted from the genius movie already on their own releases. So now I feel like I was really missing something, as it holds together so well as a document of mutated Los Angeles street life (and I really should have absorbed the whole thing in LP format in the first place). Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra breathe fiery new life (and femme rage) into Suicidal Tendencies' legendary "Institutionalized"; her vocal performance alone is a huge stand out on any tribute albums you'll hear. Black Francis & Spanish For Hitchhiking cover the originally oompa-paced "El Clavo Y La Cruz" as a bluesy sizzler, more fit for a Tarantino showdown than an Alex Cox chase scene. Along the same lines, Matthew Sweet kicks out a really sharp and sexy "Hombre Secreto (Secret Agent Man)" covering a cover better than I remember the original cover's cover being. (Ha.) 

The Suicide Dolls take on the most challenging task, in my opinion, by trying to blend both the original punk rock feel of the Circle Jerks' "When The Shits The Fan" with the band's own lounge parody of it. Instead, they change it into an X-style rave up that expresses both the burn out of living in Hollywood along with the energy of hope of moving there in the first place. "Let's Have A War" is a faithful cover of a prime Fear song by Mike Watt (& The Secondmen) that lacks a bit of the ferocity of Lee Ving's original venomous original, but hey come on – it's fucking Mike Watt, and he can growl like a desolation angel. 

Both A Tribute To Repo Man and the Smiths covers anthology are various artist albums that are not (or shouldn't be) destined for the dollar bins. They are not random, but well-picked for content and performance and show that the indie scene is still coming up with new, dazzling twists on old formats. It's smashing fun to be experiencing these timeless songs over again, without contemporary genre burdens, but with hot fresh zazz. Pick 'em both up and you'll have hours of manic mix tape-like thrills. 

{Smiths photo courtesy of the internet, no credit listed.}