Various Artists – Guilt By Association

Various Artists
Guilt By Association

Contrary to narrow-minded opinion, indier-than-thou types can be just as susceptible to the hidden-charms of middle-of-the-road songwriters as they are to the work of the reputable rock demi-gods. Rarely though, do such people openly admit to liking such guilty daytime radio or MTV-friendly pleasures, let alone re-record them with a degree of earnest admiration. Sure, there was a Carpenters tribute album some years ago (which included a stellar Sonic Youth contribution), Mark Kozelek has done his AC/DC and Genesis deconstructions, Will Oldham has dabbled here and there (notably with Elton John and Cranberries standards), as too has Devendra Banhart (with R. Kelly’s repertoire), but it’s still the old workhorses (Neil Young, Bob Dylan, The Beatles et al.) that get the largest slices of the covers cake from the left-of-centre musical world. Therefore, this new and much-hyped compilation of ‘alt. rock-stars re-interpreting the decidedly un-cool songbooks of the manufactured and mass-marketed mainstream’ is such a refreshing and remarkable break from the norm.

Tackling a motley bundle of otherwise cringe-worthy material is a largely-revered but crucially not too self-important gathering of artists. Collectively, they take a myriad of approaches in attempting to unearth some of their supposed ‘favourite’ AOR/MOR tracks from the rubble of histrionic singers, over-polished production values and – in some cases – really bad hair. The success of each featured contributor depends largely on them channelling their own inherent quirks into the creations of the unhip, as well as finely-balancing levels of irreverence and respect. Such assessment criteria splits Guilt By Association into three unevenly-sorted groups; the fakers, the shakers and the innovators.

‘The fakers’ are the ones that either show-off (Mike Watt’s unfunny mangling of Blue Öyster Cult’s “Burnin’ For You” succeeds in being even more sludgy than the original), rely on a lazy stripped-down setting for a still-unredeemable composition (such as Casey Shea’s tedious take on System of A Down’s “Chop Suey”) or just try too hard (The Mooney Suzuki’s overwrought stab at Cher’s “Just Like Jesse James”). Thankfully though, such misfires are in a minority, leaving ‘the shakers’ to straddle the bulk of the collection. Rolling in, to hog the limelight, comes Devendra Banhart’s seemingly reverential Mariachi busker renovation of Oasis’s “Don’t Look Back In Anger” (which conceals a cheeky double-entendre rewrite of the lyrics), closely followed by Will Oldham’s deadpan electronic reconstruction of Mariah Cahey’s “Can’t Take That Away” (which almost sounds more synthetically-assembled than its more-famous version). Elsewhere, Mark Mulcahy’s twist on Shania Twain’s “From This Moment On” is so astonishingly pretty and lovelorn that it wouldn’t have sounded too out of place on his sublime SmileSunset LP. Ex-Karate frontman Geoff Farina pulls a similarly winning move with his elegiac electro-acoustic re-arrangement of Eddie Money’s “Two Tickets To Paradise”. Although not quite as revelatory as hoped for, Jim O’Rourke’s epic six-minute spin through The Spice Girls ballad “Viva Forever” alternates impressively between rugged blues dirge, plaintive Bacharach orchestration and burbling electronica.

Ultimately, it’s ‘the innovators’ who really make Guilt By Association worth most of the promotional hyperbole. Petra Haden’s reapplication of her multi-tracked a cappella vocal shtick (as used on her startling rebirth of The Who Sell Out) upon Journey’s previously unbearable “Don’t Stop Believin’” makes for a truly bewitching experience. Superchunk’s soaring high-octane punk-pop attack on Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” celebrates the original’s sassiness and then takes it back to sit snugly alongside the quartet’s own string of blistering lightening-fast ‘hits’. Ahead of Haden and Superchunk’s entries by a whisker, is Luna’s slinky slow-funk makeover of Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” (an outtake from the sadly dissolved band’s Romantica studio sessions), which proves itself as another utterly adorable addition to Dean Wareham’s vast catalogue of transcendental reincarnations.

Whilst Guilt By Association may have its fair share of fillers (but then what multi-artist compilation doesn’t?) as an exercise in rehabilitating otherwise odious songs it wins on many different levels. Now, dare it be suggested already that a Guiltier By Further Association sequel set might be worth considering?