At Scolari’s Office, a bar in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego, there occurs a weekly phenomenon known as “Scolarioke,” which is basically karaoke performed by drunken scenesters, often ironically. While I’ve known many who found the event, at the very least, entertaining, a friend of mine once tore the institution a new one, claiming that irony is no way in which to appreciate music. “If you’re going to sing Rod Stewart’s `Maggie May,'” he said, “don’t do it because it’s kitschy, do it because it’s a great fuckin’ song!” It’s hard not to agree with a statement like that, particularly if you’re the type of singer who can pull it off well. Even so, it’s just karaoke. There are countless bands who perform covers all the time, sometimes because they’re favorites, and sometimes because the execution is meant to be amusing and a bit ridiculous. Green Day used to pepper their sets with hair metal classics, and Alanis Morrissette gained a bit of notoriety for her goofball cover of “My Humps.” Both Fountains of Wayne and Travis converted “Baby One More Time” into something much greater than anyone anticipated. But then again, there were all those covers of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” and that shit was just way out of hand.
Enter Sexton Blake (a.k.a. Josh Hodges), a Portland-based artist who knows a thing or two about a cover. He recorded “Rose Parade” on To: Elliott, From: Portland, the Elliott Smith tribute, and his latest, Plays the Hits! is an all covers affair. Perusing the tracklist, one could make the assumption that many of these are, indeed, ironic—LL Cool J’s “I Need Love” is, after all, one of the featured selections on this disc. Yet, such is not the case. Sexton Blake does these 13 songs right, showing what a little bit of lo-fi fuzz-pop magic can do with the classics.
Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” gets a slow, pretty drum machine makeover, as does “Bette Davis Eyes,” which, in this particular instance, sounds more like early Death Cab For Cutie. The casio pop take on Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks” is, for all its kitschy sounds, a kickass version, one that probably wouldn’t have done my Stewart-fan friend proud, but sounds great nonetheless. Admittedly “I Need Love” sounds a bit awkward with music that resembles The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” I’ll give him points for effort, though. Much more satisfying is the stark, acoustic cover of Supertramp’s “The Logical Song,” which has a somber and melancholy sensibility that isn’t as apparent in the boisterous original. It’s moments like these where Sexton Blake displays what a cover really should sound like; he brings out a side of the song that one might not have detected before, breathing new life into it and interpreting it in a way that only he can.
The second half of the album has an even more intriguing selection of songs, in that a good many of them would be considered `guilty pleasures’ by most, but Sexton Blake still finds a way to make them sound fresh, most of them just barely resembling their former incarnations. Erasure’s “Oh L’amour” receives an inspired treatment, while “Girl You Know It’s True” is a downcast, lo-fi ballad sharing very little in common with Milli Vanilli’s hit other than the lyrics. Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush” turns into a cymbal crashing anthem in Hodges’ hands, though it could have been aided by a bit larger arrangement. The dense chugging in Hodges’ interpretation of The Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town” is another standout, culminating in one of the noisier tracks on the record. Closing everything off is Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” a simple and pretty finish to a surprisingly simple and enjoyable set of covers. Sexton Blake gets to the kernel of each of these songs and brings out the best of each of them. Don’t confuse this for hipster karaoke—Sexton Blake plays a cover right, getting straight to the essence and making it sound new again.
The Moog Cookbook – The Moog Cookbook
Grant Lee Phillips – nineteeneighties
Yo La Tengo – Little Honda
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.