CD Review of Guilt by Association Vol. 2 by Various Artists
Various Artists: Guilt by Association Vol. 2
Recommended if you like
weird pop covers,
obscure indie rock artists
Label
Engine Room
Various Artists:
Guilt by Association Vol. 2

Reviewed by Michael Fortes

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T
he very idea of the "ironic cover" seems obsolete in this era of celebratory dorkdom: On the first volume of Guilt by Association covers, Petra Haden opened the album with an a cappella rendition of Journey’s "Don’t Stop Believing," and a month later, the final episode of "The Sopranos" rendered the song unironically hip, giving the appearance that someone at Engine Room must have had some inside information up his or her sleeve.

It’s fitting, then, that the new and improved second volume is much lighter on goofiness and neon-bright critically acclaimed indie stars. Recent Wall Street Journal props for My Brightest Diamond notwithstanding, the likely reaction to mentioning most of these artists to Joe Q. Public will be a bewildered "huh?" But dang if this cast of unknowns hasn’t bested the first volume of Guilt by Association, both with their collective sincerity and fairly consistently inventive, non-lazy approaches to reinventing these so-called guilty pleasures.

Let’s get one thing straight, though – "Tainted Love" has been pretty hip for years. Walk into any ‘80s-themed dance club, and odds are in your favor that you’ll be guiltlessly grooving to Soft Cell’s hit version of this Gloria Jones northern soul single. And if you’re lucky, you might even hear the extended medley with "Where Did Our Love Go?" My Brightest Diamond sticks to just the one tune, however, and even though it rocks more than it swings, it’s just as passionate as its two more famous forebears, and very much dance floor-ready.

One could, again, easily argue that Phil Collins’ "In the Air Tonight" (one of the few solo Collins hits with any teeth) and OMD’s "If You Leave" aren’t exactly "guilty pleasures" either, though Takka Takka’s take on the former could very well fall into the category all its own for that Chris Martin quality in the lead vocals. One could easily be forgiven for thinking Coldplay made the record, because this clearly isn’t the same funky, Talking Heads-esque, neo new wave sound with buried, detached vocals that earned "Silence" some Nic Harcourt love on KCRW. As for Asthmatic Kitty artist Rafter’s take on "If You Leave," it’s decidedly more organic than the original, and happier too – who wouldn’t smile at the sound of handclaps and horns?

Some of these tracks whiz by without leaving much of an impression – Francis & the Lights’ take on Kanye West’s "Can’t Tell Me Nothing," for example, or Frightened Rabbit’s cover of the British hit by N-Trance, "Set You Free." But this owes more to the song itself in the case of the former. With the latter, it’s more a matter of the fact that if you’re not British or European, you’ve probably never heard of N-Trance to begin with. Though, to Frightened Rabbit’s credit, they manage to turn "Set You Free" into something resembling a lost Cure demo.

But when it comes to New Edition’s teenybopper hit "Cool it Now," Robbers on High Street went the distance to take a real "guilty pleasure" and make it tolerable simply by singing like men instead of boys, and adding a touch of that oh-so-cool and detached indie rock swagger. It’s not always easy to define, but when you hear it you know it. And yet, this tune is less ironic and more celebratory. The detail in the backing vocals is too precise for mere irony. The distance award also goes to Matt Pond PA’s mopey recast of My Chemical Romance’s "I’m Not Okay," a song which this reviewer would never admit to liking in its original guise even if he did have any love for it; and unsigned artist Max Vernon’s charmingly kitschy gender-bender on Katy Perry’s "I Kissed a Girl." These are the star moments that make Guilt By Association Vol. 2, song for song and note for note, a listening exercise as irresistible as rubbernecking a car wreck. And, as far as we know, nobody broke any bones for it, either.

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