If I had the mental power today, I could maybe count on one hand all the tribute albums I find worth hearing, or maybe on two fingers. I do have the mental power today to suggest reasons for tribute albums’ general suckitude: labels forcing the participation of shitty new sign-ees, lackluster efforts on the part of participants, tributes to people who deserve no tribute, lack of editing — by which I mean I have no idea if tribute albums’ curators have the wherewithal, when presented with a lame-o track, to tell the artist to go screw themselves.
I’ve been listening to two non-recent tribute albums lately, scored off the blognet, both tipping their hats to undisputed champion rock bands. 1989’s Here Ain’t the Sonics should be great, considering that the Sonics made punishing and raucous rock and roll filled with singles that should have been hits. In a nutshell, they sounded crazy and hyper, like speed-eating instrument bashers. They sounded like they wanted to fight you and could fight you well. Even the slower tracks swung. You believed them.
Although this tribute lineup is decent and filled with true-believer garage band acolytes like the Nomads and the Original Sins, Here Ain’t the Sonics lives up to its title all too well, especially when the Sonics’ best track, “Psycho,” gets handed to the Screaming Trees. It might be the worst cover of anything by anyone. And I don’t entirely hate Screaming Trees, but this is like asking Sheena Easton to cover the Nervous Eaters:
Screaming Trees – “Psycho”
Even the usually wonderful Young Fresh Fellows deliver a limp “High Time,” and The Cynics miraculously suck everything good out of “Shot Down” with pedestrian bar-chord solos and sterile drumming. I can’t even write about the Mono Men’s version of “The Witch.” Positives? Too few: Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper sound suitably mental on the Sonics’ “Have Love Will Travel” (really a cover of a cover, no?), Thee Headcoats do a fine job with “You’ve Got Your Head on Backwards,” and the Fallouts get it right with “I’m Going Home,” sounding live in the studio and like they just drank something evil. For even better Sonics covers — and I’m sure others are legion — look to Lee Fields’ daptone records single/cover of “Shot Down,” a soul masterpiece if there ever was one, and, of course, the Cramps’ cover of “Strychnine.”
A more recent tribute, Dig For Fire, a tribute to the Pixies, erred on the side of faithful-sounding covers, a huge mistake considering that there’s no reason to hear a cover (of anything, really) that doesn’t either improve on the original (which, in the Pixies’s case, almost can’t be done) or doesn’t reinterpret it well. You could almost say it’s a test of a band. On Dig For Fire, Joy Zipper made “Wave of Mutilation” boring, OK GO wrung the humor and power out of “Gigantic,” and the less said about the Bunnies’ “Alec Eiffel, the better. A few hit the mark, either re-interpretively or improvement-wise:
Fashion Victims – Hey
Mogwai – Gouge Away
Knife and Fork – Motorway to Roswell
But stay away, mostly.
For one thing, all tribute albums should be done by Japanese musicians. They take everything American and make it better, anyway (shout out to J. Fahrenheit).
I think A Tribute to the Pixies came out in 1999, look up the label yourself, and it includes Japanese bands and artists I’ve never heard of – maybe some no longer exist. Pixies songs are hard to fuck up, or should be, but if memory serves right, there were a couple other Pixies tributes around the same time that achieved the impossible feat of being un-listenable. These bands sound like fans, but also sound like they pay attention to the tone of a Pixies song, or the song structure, or something ineffable they had about putting their shit together. This tribute makes no attempt to balance selections throughout the Pixies career, either, instead seemingly letting each artist pick. So we get two covers of “Debaser,” each good, dammit:
Another mark of a decent to great tribute record is covers that encourage me to love songs I never did. I can do without Trompe Le Monde in general, but these two versions have me wondering why: