Zack Hillman

Review: Engine Room Recordings Presents: “A Tribute to Pinkerton”

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As a rule, tribute albums tend to be a mixed bag. Either the covering artists are too true to the originals, slavishly rehashing them down to the tempo; or they strive too hard to move away from the originals, losing the point of the song or album. If they are too true to the originals, they may as well save us all some time by becoming a tribute band. On the other hand, if the covering band’s only concern is not to sound like the original artist, then it almost seems a challenge to the original artist, an act of defiance rather than inspiration. There are obvious exceptions to these two extreme approaches—who would have expected, say, Dub Side of the Moon (2003) or Dread Zeppelin to capture so successfully a unique perspective on well-known favorites? Such fun and spontaneous interpretations of familiar artists and sounds are what make music a still cathartic experience, some sixty years into this rock and roll thing.

Imagine then the potential triumph (or tragedy) of a Pinkerton (1996) tribute. Wonder no more, as Engine Room Recordings has done exactly that on A Tribute to Pinkerton. Known for covering artists as diverse as Journey, Mariah Carey, and Ace of Base, Engine Room is no new-comer to this game. As such, they have been able to secure a-list talent for their tribute albums like Devendra Banhart, Superchunk, and Will Oldham. For this take on the Weezer classic, the label employs an eclectic mix of vets and up-and-comers: Jenny Owen Youngs, Rob Cantor of Tally Hall, Canon Logic, and Wakey! Wakey! among others. Many of the covers play around with the concept of fidelity to the originals. Most of the artists use 80s synth pop as a primary foundation, before the album turns into an acoustic wind-down affair on the last three tracks. Far from alienating the listener, however, these touchstones give the album a sense of cohesion. It is also a testament to how good the original album is, that the listener is gleefully along for the ride, wondering, “What’s next?”

Among 90s alternative albums, none holds quite the reputation of Weezer’s magnum opus Pinkerton. Taking a darker, more confessional approach than the band’s light-hearted rocker debut, Pinkerton had a decidedly more polarizing effect on listeners and critics alike. Audience reaction was lukewarm, perhaps because of the band’s more abrasive approach, or their refusal to release a big-budget music video for leadoff single “El Scorcho.” The critical reception for the album ranged from glowing to incendiary—Jeff Gordinier of Entertainment Weekly even going so far as calling the album “a collection of get-down party anthems for agoraphobics.”

Such a seemingly denigrating tag (completely on the money, by the way) demonstrates why Pinkerton ultimately succeeded: it espoused a view theretofore unattained in the annals of rock and roll. Sure, Kurt Cobain had won over the jaded junkies; Beck had his core of slacker weirdoes; and Alanis Morissette kick-started a feminist angst as pop movement. Still, there was a devoted corps of nerds who loved Kiss as much as they loved Akira, which was completely ignored by the big alternative acts of the time. These are the guys who love women as much as they fear them. The guys with Buddy Holly glasses and Yngwie Malmsteen shirts. To this insular (and rabid) fan base, Pinkerton is a love letter and rallying cry—a rocking reminder that “it’s OK to be different, ‘cause I’ve been there, too.”

Cast in such a light, the confused emotions on display in Pinkerton play out not as unsophisticated, but starkly honest. Is there a song in all of rock as simultaneously elegiac and weird and rocking as “No Other One?” Perhaps the Pixies’ track “Monkey Gone to Heaven” comes closest, but doesn’t connect on the personal level that the Weezer classic does. Also perhaps lost on critics at the time of its release, a number of the songs manage to employ subtle nuances that prevent the album from becoming a gigantic crybaby marathon. Consider the humorous refrain of “Pink Triangle” for instance: “I’m dumb/ She’s a lesbian/ I thought that I’d found the one/ We were good as married in my mind/ But married in my mind’s no good.” The unrequited admiration salvo “El Scorcho” also portions its rocking guitar with healthy slabs of self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek humor. The rock is still the main point though: “Getchoo” sounds like a speedy deep cut off of one of Queen’s classic albums, “Tired of Sex” blasts out of your speakers like a Nintendo fueled rocket, “The Good Life” recalls too many classic riffs to list, and “Why Bother?” has as much power and pop crammed into two minutes as a classic Cheap Trick single. By the time the album closes on the melancholy, acoustic “Butterfly,” the listener is changed and moved. In short, Pinkerton has all the hallmarks of a classic album, and deserves the cult reverence it has received.

Engine Room Recordings’ is a fitting tribute to this classic, at once showing profound respect from the covering artists who grew up with the album, yet them the space to interpret these tracks on their own terms. This doesn’t always mean a total overhaul of each track’s original aesthetics, but most often the artists forsake the rehashing approach. Even the ones who play close to the original, however, still manage to find interesting and engaging twists on the classics. For instance, Aunt Martha’s cover of the haunting album closer “Butterfly” keeps the breathy vocals and acoustic guitars of the original; however, the band smartly ups the tempo, and lead singer Tim Noyes croons (almost recalling Nick Cave) for a wholly different but equally provocative effect. The most straightforward and true to the original cover is Jenny Owen Youngs’ rendition of “Getchoo”. Far from sounding rote, however, the track sounds purely joyous, Youngs matching every trill that Rivers Cuomo sings on the original. The synths she throws into the mix enhance the rocking mettle of the original in a fun and interesting way, hinting that in another universe this track could be a dance floor rager.

Of the less faithful recastings, there are many fun excursions into various styles you wouldn’t expect. For instance, who could have guessed that Rob Cantor’s Brian-Wilson-with-a-sampler treatment of “Why Bother?” was exactly what that song needed? Or that Dinosaur Feather’s modern ska and dub send-up of “Tired of Sex” could maintain the impact of the original’s message to a slinky funk groove? Such unforeseen joys abound throughout the compilation. Wakey! Wakey! strikes gold by turning “El Scorcho” into a charming synth and drum machine ditty. Slowing the tempo just slightly gives the track a lullaby feel, and almost encourages the listener to sing-along even more than the original, as if such a thing were possible. Xylos’ version of “The Good Life” also takes the track in a completely new direction, rivaling the Eurythmics with its calm and confident sheen. The reverb-leaden vocals and complimentary synth flourishes are taken straight out of the 80s, having a transformative and engaging effect.

Towards the end, the album switches gears from synth pop/rock to acoustic fireside sing-along. Rightly, this transition is eased by Hoots & Hellmouth’s take on “Falling For You,” which recasts the guitars as mandolins, but still finds room in the mix for electric piano. The result is something between jazz and bluegrass that’s so irresistibly musical and listenable all at once, you can’t help but be caught in its elegant sweep. This takes us into the aforementioned Aunt Martha version of “Butterfly,” which maintains its beauty on multiple listens. The album closes with a bonus b-side from the Pinkerton sessions “You Gave Your Love To Me Softly” covered by Canon Logic. Far from disrupting the flow from the original album, the added song perfectly compliments the two tracks that precede it—an acoustic cool down from the synth-driven thump of the bulk of the album. Turning the Ramones-esque original into a delicate folk hymn is a stroke of genius.

On the whole, the album offers many treasures for the Weezer enthusiast, and comes highly recommended. Steering clear of the normal pitfalls of a tribute album, while still doing right by the original, this album will offer fun and interesting spins on beloved favorites. Anyone looking for a simple re-recording of the songs should be advised to instead direct their attentions to one of the many Weezer tributes gigging out and about… because, unlike Weezer tribute bands, reimaginings this unique don’t come down the pipe every day!

Engine Room Recordings presents:  A Tribute to Pinkerton Track Listing:
01. “Tired of Sex” – Dinosaur Feathers
02. “Getchoo” – Jenny Owen Youngs
03. “No Other One” – backwords
04. “Why Bother?” – Rob Cantor
05. “Across the Sea” – Soft Swells
06. “The Good Life” – Xylos
07. “El Scorcho” – Wakey!Wakey!
08. “Pink Triangle” – Heypenny
09. “Falling For You” – Hoots & Hellmouth
10. “Butterfly” – Aunt Martha
11. “You Gave Your Love to Me Softly” (B-Side) – Canon Logic


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