September 10, 2004

Confuse Yr Idols: A Tribute to Sonic Youth

Ah... my first review of a tribute album. Should I go on and on about how lame and unnecessary tribute albums are? I could talk about how cover songs are akin to remakes of classic movies. They're just not as good as the originals. Or I could talk about tribute albums are really just a platform for mostly bad-to-mediocre bands to gain publicity for themselves by recording someone else's song that people actually like instead of their own unworthy original shit that people otherwise wouldn't give the time of the day. I mean, come on! Who wants to waste their time with the same old songs done by different people when they could better spend their time listening to new and original music instead?

I do!

I like cover songs. Sometimes a band can bring something new and interesting to a song that wasn't there before when the original artist did. Sometimes a change as subtle as a woman singing a song originally sung by a man (or vice versa) is enough to inject new life into a song. Sometimes a band can modify another band's song so much that it's almost unrecognizable, which can have very interesting results. Sometimes a band can just do a cover without changing the song one bit, and it doesn't matter because it's just fun for the band to play and fun for the audience to hear.

I think you've had enough of the basic tribute/cover discussion, so let's look at Confuse Yr Idols now. Considering the influence that Sonic Youth has had over so many bands in a wide variety of genres, it's surprising that the record stores and mail order distros aren't overflowing with Sonic Youth tributes. I haven't heard any other SY tribute albums myself, but I know there are one or two others out there. But for me, the novelty of a Sonic Youth tribute has not worn off.
Let's talk about the tribute album itself. It has twelve tracks, with SY material spanning from their self-titled EP (their first release) to Washing Machine (which I think was Sonic Youth's last great album as a whole). The biggest names on this CD seem to be Racebannon, Elf Power, Parts & Labor, and Saicobab (which is an alias for Yoshimi from the Boredoms). I shouldn't do this, but I bet you wonder what each track sounds like. So, I'm actually going to give you a little track-by-track. Enjoy!

1. Racebannon "Death Valley '69"

This one is very faithful to the original song. So faithful that it almost sounds like they took the original track, cut out the original vocals, and re-recorded their vocals. It sounds cool, but there's something lacking because they only recreated Thurston's vocals and left out Lydia Lunch's. Since it sounds like they were going for accuracy, they really should have gotten someone to do the duet. Otherwise, it's not bad.

2. Brystl "Shadow of a Doubt"

I feel guilty for reviewing this track because it's the only one on here that I didn't like in its original form. And it's another straight, faithful cover, but with a male doing the vocals (Kim sang on the original). I don't know what exactly turns me off about this song. I think it's mediocre at best and doesn't match up to a lot of their other material. I suppose if you like the original song, you'll like this cover, though.

3. New Grenada "Eric's Trip"

Again, a straight cover, but with the sex of the singer changed. This time you have a female vocalist doing a faithful, spirited rendition of Lee's talk-sing vocals. I like the way it sounds. I'm sure there are people out there who agree with me that female vocals make things better, or at least more interesting. They also use moogish keyboard to reproduce the noise guitar line, which also sounds good. A straight cover, but the energy and female vocals really sell it.

4. Steel Pole Bath Tub "I Dreamed I Dream"

Another very straight cover. If that doesn't please you, don't worry. Things will get interesting later. The differences on this track are that they use male vocals for both vocal parts (Lee and Kim were both on the original version), and I think they actually use a little more noise on this track. It's a good cover, but you may be disappointed if you wanted them to change the song somehow.

5. Twink "Cinderella's Big Score"

Now, we have the first of the unorthodox covers. Sadly, however, it's the shittiest track on this album, but not for the quality of the music. Twink, for those of you who don't know, is known for making electronic/experimental music with toy pianos. I like his work, but the reason why this sucks is because this sounds nothing like "Cinderella's Big Score". It's just toy piano with a couple pitch-shifted samples from a reading of the "Cinderella" fairy tale ("I'm your fairy godmother, I will help you). It would be a nice Twink album track, but it doesn't belong here because it's not really a Sonic Youth cover. It's not as much of a copout as if someone just recorded a bunch of formless IDM noise and gave it a Sonic Youth title, but it's just as disappointing. Come on, Twink! You could have at least made the toy piano part sound a little bit like the guitar or vocals from "Cinderella's Big Score".

6. Stationary Odyssey "Dirty Boots"

This one barely qualifies as a straight, faithful cover. Or it barely doesn't qualify. Whatever. But the quirk here is that the song is played at a much slower tempo. If you love the faster, original "Dirty Boots", you might find yourself often skipping this track.

7. Rapider Than Horsepower "Little Trouble Girl"

It starts off very well, but then it becomes something of an atrocity. The beginning part of the song is wonderfully done with a string section doing an instrumental version of Kim's vocals. The trouble comes when the cover gets to the spoken word part. Then they decide to put in vocals. Horrible vocals. It's a male vocalist, but that's not the problem. This male vocalist just has a bad voice (or intentionally put on a bad voice for this song). I'm not exactly sure how to properly describe. I guess it sounds kind of like the guy was singing through a sore throat. This could have been one of the best tracks on the CD if they had just kept it as a classical instrumental, but noooooo, they had to ruin it with vocals that just clash with the beauty of the song. That could have been their point, but that just means that they intentionally sabotaged a cover that could have been great.

8. Tub Ring "Kool Thing"

This might be the best track on the album, which is funny because I thought it sucked at first. The track starts with a faithful rendition of the song's opening riffs, but then metamorphosizes into atrocious lounge jazz when the vocals come in. At first, I couldn't get past those incredibly cheesy vocals and funky jazz piano, but when I did, I was surprised to find that the whole song didn't sound that way. Incredibly, this cover is a joke, but an intentionally funny one! They just sucked on purpose at first! But then, at the spoken word part, they go back to faithfully recreating the song, complete with a great Chuck D impression, except that Kim's spoken word vocals are done by a robot voice ("Are you going to liberate us robots from male, white corporate opression?"). Hilarious! And after the spoken word part, they bounce genres again and end by doing the song in a heavy metal fashion, perfect for headbanging. And that's not all. There are a couple more gags in the song, but I don't want to give them away. This track is worth at least half the price of the album. Genius!

9. KY Prophet "Making the Nature Scene"

A rap version for "Making the Nature Scene". Of course, Sonic Youth already did one as Ciccone Youth, but this is different. Ciccone Youth's version sounded like Sonic Youth with a beatbox (which it really was), but this sounds like an '80s rap group covering the song. A male rapper does the main lyrics, while a female voice sings some catchy backing vocals. Well done!

10. Elf Power "Kotton Krown"

If you're an Elf Power fan, you've heard this one before. It's the same version on their covers album, Nothing's Going to Happen. For those who have never heard this, try and imagine an Elephant 6 band doing a laid back, acoustic cover of this song. It's good, but I'm disappointed because I've heard this one before.

11. Parts & Labor "Sugar Kane"

A straight cover, but this one is just good because they have a synth playing the main guitar part. I love how it sounds. The synth turns what would have been a mostly uninteresting rendition of the song into something much bigger.

12. Saicobab "Death Valley '69"

Yes, they bookended the album with "Death Valley '69". This is an interesting rendition. The song structure and tempo are the same, but it's the instrumentation that makes this one sound quite unorthodox. First of all, there's a sitar doing the lead guitar part, which sounds really cool. Both Thurston and Lydia's vocals are covered here. Thurston's part is done with a vocoder, while Lydia's is done without effects. (Probably necessary because the same vocalist is doing both parts). The spoken/yelled word part in the middle is particularly interesting because it's been turned into a jarring, psychedelic mush of guitar, sitar, and synthesized piano. A triumph of audio mixing! Anyway, this one allows the album to finish on a high note.

That's it. If all of that description makes you curious, you might as well get this album. Most of it doesn't suck outright, and the bad parts at least make interesting curiosity pieces. And you just have to experience the Tub Ring and Saicobab tracks for yourself to understand how good they are!

--Eric Wolf

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