Punk’s great strengths are energy and attitude – usually the weak point is songwriting because the genre has been mined down to the core after almost 30 years and it was never a motherlode of tunefulness in the first place. Thus the appeal of punk covers: you get the energy and the attitude AND recognizable tunes you can sing along with, either out of empathy or derision. A dirty little secret is that almost EVERY song with a recognizable tune sounds great a la punk, and the noise and attitude make even the sappiest nonsense sound, um, cool.
Which brings us to the gooey goodness of Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, punk’s snappiest-dressing cover band and a delight at twice the price. A West Coast sometime-supergroup with Spike Slawson on vocals, NoFX’s Fat Mike on bass, Lagwagon drummer Dave Raun, guitarists Joey Cape (Ataris, Bad Astronaut, Lagwagon) and Jake Jackson, the Gimmes take on R&B tunes this time out (note hilarious liner notes) on the uproarious Take a Break.
It’s pretty damn hard to maintain a broken heart when the Gimmes rip through Whitney Houston’s “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” – the song’s genuine pathos undiminished by the punky reading. You will marvel at effectiveness of their double-time backbeat NoFX-ish romp through Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine”: a great song is a great song. As much as I love Sinead’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the punk-ska take here is nearly its equal.
Raun’s inspired, tight tom-tom figure sets up a great, tough groove for Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” and Jackson’s ukulele sets an island mood for R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” (“Tony couldn’t fly, Tony DIED,” for you Jim Carroll fans) before we break into traditional precision speed-punk at the halfway mark.
A note-for-note lifting of the intro to the Cars’ “Just What I Needed” brilliantly opens the Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There” (one of Michael’s sweetest vocals – the fact that I can never again just LISTEN to a Jackson song makes me extremely resentful – MJ you shithead), which falters a bit when the buzzing bass overwhelms the rest of the production – but hey, no one’s perfect.
Who would have thought a jug and an accordion would make such an apt setting for Nat King Cole’s sublime “Mona Lisa”? Nice straight vocal by Spike as well. And who can deny that singing the song might indeed make our man Spike feel like a “Natural Woman”?
It’s all just swell, but my fave of the bunch not only makes for great listening but also forced a reevaluation of the song’s writer: “Hello” and Lionel Richie. Yes, Richie’s “Hello” reveals a great, sophisticated melody in the driving punk treatment the Gimmes give it. Before we move on to Lionel, I must reiterate that Take A Break is a total winner. Rock it out, baby brother.
Now to Richie: perhaps Lionel’s time has come again, although not all for the right reasons. His daughter, Nicole Richie, is co-star with Paris Hilton on Fox’s rich-sluts-on-the-farm reality show, The Simple Life, after the taping of which she went into rehab for heroin. Oops – not that Nicole can be entirely blamed on Lionel, but neither can he be entirely absolved of his offspring’s nincompoopery.
But there is also a Richie arousal for the right reasons – his mega-successful Motown albums from the ’80s were rereleased this year: Lionel Richie, Can’t Slow Down (given the Deluxe Edition treatment) and Dancing On the Ceiling, as well as the aptly named Definitive Collection.
His eponymous solo debut in ’82 still displayed the funky R&B of his Commodores origins, but the album’s smash hit, “Truly,” was adult contemporary all the way and Richie hesitated not in turning down that path to superstardom. Can’t Slow Down featured five Top Ten singles, including number ones, the Latin-influenced “All Night Long (All Night),” and “Hello.” Can’t Slow Down hit number one, eventually sold over ten million copies, and won the 1984 Grammy for Album of the Year.
Richie’s way with a melody, and his fine, rich voice are undeniable at a safe remove from the ’80s overkill. “Penny Lover” is a memorable Quiet Storm ballad, but “Stuck On You” startled the hell out of everyone – it’s such an undeniably great country-esque ballad that it even made the country charts. Whoa, talk about dogs and cats sleeping together (of course Richie had already written Kenny Rogers’ smash “Lady,” so the groundwork had been laid, but still…). I have to admit, that one gives me a bit of a chill after a 15-year break.
Richie may have worn out his welcome (who hasn’t at that level of success?), but the success was warranted. Okay, th blind girl in the video for “Hello” was hokey, but people, it was the ’80s. The backlash had already begun to set in by Dancing On the Ceiling, but the title track actually rocks (to a certain extent), “Se La” would have made a great Police song, and so “Say You, Say Me” pretty well sucks – no one is perfect.
Of the three studio albums, Can’t Slow Down is the obvious choice, but that Definitive Collection is packed tight and would be my recommendation. Welcome back Lionel – now do something about that girl of yours.