By their very nature, tribute albums are a mixed bag. Most of them have three or four outstanding tracks, three or four God-awful tracks and about a half-dozen well meaning, but otherwise straightforward and underwhelming songs. I, myself, am a fan of covers. And I’ve even enjoyed entire tribute albums in (almost) their entirety, most notably The Smiths is Dead and For the Masses, the Depeche Mode tribute. But if a covers album isn’t done right, it will most likely go unnoticed and, for the most part, unheard.
In the case of Confuse Yr Idols, Narnack Records’ new Sonic Youth covers album, the good outweighs the bad, thankfully. Where some tributes fall flat by either being too leftfield and bizarre or too straightforward, Idols, fortunately, walks a line in-between. Seeing as how Sonic Youth were always pretty weird as it is, having straightforward versions of some of their songs actually would sound pretty weird. And, in the case of some of the poppier moments, they do.
Noisier artists like Racebannon and Steel Pole Bathtub (covering “Death Valley ’69” and “I Dreamed I Dream,” respectively) play it relatively safe, playing up the noisy skronk aspect. Seeing as how Sonic Youth made a career out of it, this method works, even if it is a little on the unadventurous side. But what makes covers interesting is when an artist takes a song and makes it their own. And many of the artists featured on Idols do, indeed, put their own personal mark on the Youth’s originals. Twink transforms “Cinderella’s Big Score” into a minimal electronic track with some truly bizarre vocals. Stationary Odyssey plays “Dirty Boots” slo-core style. And Tub Ring plays a piano-driven cabaret noise version of “Kool Thing.” But the two best tracks are easily the contributions by Elf Power and Saicobab, which features Yoshimi P-We from The Boredoms. Elf Power transforms “Kotton Krown” into a bright, peppy pop single. But Saicobab, the second artist on the compilation to tackle “Death Valley ’69,” practically ditches the original composition altogether, using vague traces of the song’s riff, played in sitar, over strange organ drones and atmospheric background washes.
The only track that hinders the album is New Granada’s somewhat boring indie-pop take on “Eric’s Trip.” It’s not offensive, by any means, but it has some pretty stiff competition.
Confuse Yr Idols is impressive by tribute album standards, but there are always more outlandish things that could be done to a band’s music, particularly one as strange as Sonic Youth. Should someone try this again, I’d like to hear The Postal Service covering “Expressway to Yr Skull,” Devendra Banhart trying his hand at “100%” and Aphex Twin deconstructing “Candle.” Maybe it’ll never go that far, but it’s probably for the better.
Various Artists – Give Me the Cure
Various Artists – All Tomorrow’s Parties LA
Sonic Youth – Dirty
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.