Recently, I received two review discs on the same day in the mail: not an unusual event for full-time professional music critics, one suspects, but rare enough for this humble blogger to take note of the fact. The two releases, Everclear's cover collection The Vegas Years and Robert Forster's The Evangelist, were both by artists who I typically enjoy.
But I've gotta admit when I saw the former disc, I was torn between two feelings: a mild sense of disappointment that Art Alexakis wasn't singing any of his own tailor-made songs versus my knowledge that it most likely wouldn't take as long for me to get a handle on this Everclear disc as it would the collection of all-original tracks by former Go-Between Forster. Though I suspect the Forster disc will be the one I'll return to over the long haul, Vegas Years proved to be the one I played first.
With covers collections, the central questions are fairly obvious ones. Do the remakes do justice to or expand our understanding of the original tracks? Does the artist's choice of songs tell us something about them? Is the full set a legitimate addition to the artist's discography (as with any of Bryan Ferry's remake/remodels) or just a diverting placeholder (as in the Ramones' Acid Eaters)?
Cover songs are primarily established entities: if you're coming to Vegas Years hearing "This Land Is Your Land" – or even "Our Lips Are Sealed" – for the first time, you probably need to rethink that career as a high-paid pop music critic. To be sure, every decent remake disc has at least one good obscurity (in this disc's case, it's Little Jimmy Dickens' "Night Train to Memphis"), but since one of the themes of a set like this is "These are the songs I useta hear on the radio," the more arcane selections are usually in the minority.
Most of the material on Vegas Years has been previously released on import anthologies or singles B-sides, though the only one familiar to me was the band's remake of "The Boys Are Back in Town," which appeared on the best-of anthology, Ten Years Gone. The collection covers the breadth of Everclear's career, which means that both versions of the band – which underwent major personnel changes after 2003's Slow Motion Daydream – are repped in this collection. The remake of "This Land Is Your Land," for instance, was an early single released by Everclear 2.0.
Singer/guitarist Alexakis remains the constant, of course. As a vocalist, he is no match for a malleable pop-rock singer like Cheap Trick's Robin Zander (repped here by a charging version of "Southern Girls"), while his cover of "Brown Eyed Girl" (heard on this set in a live track instead of Learning How to Smile's studio version) still comes across more fannish than soulful. But his voice is snugly suited to a slab of Pacific garage rock like Paul Revere and the Raiders' "Kicks" (the "Heroin Girl" of its day) or the folkie stylings of Woody Guthrie.
Many of the songs here are reworked to fit the basic Everclear template: plenty of grungy guitarwork, the occasional well-placed acoustic string instrument (the mandolin appearance on "This Land"), lots of insistent hard-rock drumming. The most striking reinvention is perhaps a remake of Yaz's "Bad Connection," an underrated cut from the British synth band's first album. In this instance, the band (Version 1.0) is clearly having such a good time pushing Vince Clarke's synthesizer burbles into pop-punk that you share their sense of glee. It's perhaps the one clear case on the album where Art's vocals prove more apt than original deep-throated mama Alison Moyet, who always seemed too earthy for this lightweight li'l pop tune.
So do the boys do ultimately justice to their chosen covers?
In general, yes, though I've never been much enamored with their off-rhythm take on Thin Lizzy, while their version of "Sealed" won't make you forget either the Go-Go’s or Fun Boy Three. In a couple of cases, the band's tempo shifts remind us what made the originals sound so good in the first place: a sped-up remake of "Southern Girls" swaps the original's poppy sexiness for simple acceleration, while their slow-down "American Girl" mainly shows what a power-pop classic Tom Petty's version was.
Still, the tracks remain amusing, even if I suspect that many of Alexakis' fans – the ones attracted to his psychodramatic originals, the drugs and shattered marriage and absent father songs – will come away disappointed. As a Baby Boomer, I recall originally feeling a similar sense of discontent over John Lennon's Rock 'N' Roll, but over the years I've learned to appreciate that disc's modest charms.
Does Vegas Years' song selection tell us anything about the group? Not much really, though the inclusion of two teevee theme songs ("Land of the Lost" and just-in-time-for-the-movie, "Speed Racer") lets us know what Art was watching as a boy on Saturday mornings. Perhaps that's sufficient for this diverting placeholder of an album.