When Engine Room Records released the first volume of its Guilt by Association series, each artist involved with the compilation chose to cover a song that is commonly viewed as a “guilty pleasure,” being the type of song that one loves in spite of its inherent uncoolness. Petra Haden took on Journey, Luna covered Paula Abdul, Superchunk covered Destiny’s Child, and so on and so forth, and for the most part, it turned out successful, certainly enough to warrant a second collection. What’s curious about Guilt by Association Vol. 2, however, is that the song selections seem to be turning farther away from the idea of a `guilty pleasure’, and more just a collection of indie rockers covering pop songs. Not that that’s necessarily a problem.
The first instance of the idea of a `guilty pleasure’ theme being thrown out comes in the very first track, My Brightest Diamond’s cover of “Tainted Love.” Shara Worden does a damn fine job with it, but I think we’d all agree it’s a damn good song no matter who sings it (unless it’s Marilyn Manson). New Edition, however, is a gray area. While we can dig on some new jack swing, maybe it’s not everyone’s bag, but Robbers on High Street certainly add their own uniquely cool identity to a cover of “Cool It Now.” I’ll just go right ahead and admit I’ve never heard N-Trance’s “Set You Free,” but Frightened Rabbit’s version is top notch regardless. Matt Pond PA’s interpretation of My Chemical Romance’s “I’m Not Okay” is dreamy and gorgeous, and far preferable to the original.
Takka Takka, one of last year’s more compelling discoveries with their album Migration, likewise do a dreamy version of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” sans the big, echoing drums. Kaki King adds a layer of haze to Justin Timberlake’s “I Think She Knows,” while Francis and the Lights’ take on Kanye West’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” reimagines the hip-hop track as a melancholy confessional. The Forms reconfigure Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” into a virtually unrecognizable shape, but damn if they don’t make it sound cool. Rafter’s unique take on OMD’s “If You Leave” is scruffy and lo-fi, just as listeners have come to expect from the San Diego songwriter and producer. And the lesser known Max Vernon puts his own shlubby spin on Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl,” sounding more like a nerdy guy scoring for the first time. Of course, he still sings “I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it.”
While I may not personally love all of the source material on Guilt by Association Vol. 2, and may irrationally love some of the others, the compilation gives credence to the idea that while pop songs aren’t always great, they can certainly be made so in the right hands. Of course, not everything here is a resounding success, but in spite of a few underwhelming takes, it’s a fitting celebration of the pop song in all its shameless glory.
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.