First impressions of … Supergrass (as a cover band)A track-by-track review of “Turn Ons,” an entire album of cover songs by England’s hottest export, the Hot Rats (aka Supergrass’ Gaz Coombes and Danny Goffey).
OK, kids, let’s remember our performance hierarchy: “Legitimate theater, musical theater, stand-up, ventriloquism, magic, mime.”* Now, if we were to apply this to my precious rock ‘n’ roll, we could probably substitute “mime” with “cover bands.”
That said, covers are a lot of fun when done right (and when they’re not done in spades), and that’s something Gaz Coombes and Danny Goffey of Supergrass seem to agree with me on: Enter the Hot Rats, a tasty little side project they’ve put together whose only aim is to reinterpret some of the rock era’s most beloved gems.
While I can’t ascertain why popular musicians doing covers is solid entertainment and unknowns doing the same exact thing is only considered suitable for bars, I can let you know how Coombes and Goffey did on the Hot Rats debut. Submitted for the approval of rock ‘n’ roll diehards everywhere is my track-by-track preview of “Turn Ons”:
1. “I Can’t Stand It” (Velvet Undergound/Lou Reed cover)
While it was first formally released on Lou Reed’s 1972 self-titled solo debut, “I Can’t Stand It” was actually written for his band the Velvet Underground. (Velvet Underground versions were eventually released on a 1988 CD reissue of a live album and on the 1985 odds ‘n’ sods compilation “VU.”) Either way, the Hot Rats succeed with their rollicking take. Bonus points for roping in Lucy Cover for backing vocals: There is some serious heat within this song’s boy/girl vocal back-and-forths.
2. “Big Sky” (Kinks cover)
Taken from the Kinks’ critically acclaimed 1968 opus “Village Green Preservation Society,” the grandiose scope of “Big Sky” is a lot to tackle for any group. But Coombes and Goffey succeed admirably by — big surprise — making it sound like Supergrass. So, your enjoyment of this whole excursion (I refuse to refer to an entire album of cover songs as an “experiment”) probably hinges on how much you love this duo’s main gig. In my book, Supergrass is one of the most enjoyable groups on the planet.
3. “The Crystal Ship” (Doors cover)
Flying right in the face of what I just said, Coombes is wholly convincing here when he channels the late Jim Morrison. As far as the backing track goes, it’s not very imaginative, though the boys do smother it in a fuzzy layer of feedback. (For what it’s worth….)
4. “Fight for Your Right” (Beastie Boys cover)
Miles away from their by-the-books cover of “The Crystal Ship” — and quite unrecognizable from the Beastie Boys original, for that matter — “Fight for Your Right” finds Coombes and Goffey channeling “Sell Out”-era Who and the results, why, they couldn’t be any more brilliant. This is the first essential Hot Rats track I’ve come across. As I’ve already repeated ad nauseum, I love Supergrass dearly, but “Fight for Your Right” is the first one on “Turn Ons” to even approach the unbelievable highs Coombes and Goffey manage to produce in that outfit.
5. “Damaged Goods” (Gang of Four cover)
Hot Rats’ upbeat read-through of Gang of Four’s debut single is peppy enough, but … it’s not entirely memorable; think great B-side material.
6. “Love is the Drug” (Roxy Music cover)
Infinitely more worthwhile is Hot Rats doing “Love is the Drug.” Perhaps you thought this Roxy Music classic was ruined forever when the Divinyls (eek!) covered it for the soundtrack of the ill-fated “Super Mario Bros.” movie in 1993 (double-eek!), but the Hot Rats are bringing it back from the lowest trenches of the bargain bin.
7. “Bike” (Pink Floyd cover)
When Pink Floyd’s debut album, the 1967 psychedelic classic “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” was released in America, there were a few omissions from the U.K. original, one of which was “Bike.” While the imaginative Syd Barrett composition has since gone on to win over the hearts of Floyd fans no matter where they live, it’s nice to see so much attention paid to a track that was at one point considered a “throwaway.” Next to “Fight for Your Right,” this is the second-best reason to pick up this album so far.
8. “Pump it Up” (Elvis Costello cover)
Always a favorite of mine, this 1978 New Wave blockbuster — recorded by Costello and the Attractions for his album “This Year’s Model” — has always been a can’t-fail party-starter, and the Hot Rats’ high-octane version does not fail in that department. This one is just fun.
9. “The Lovecats” (Cure cover)
If the number of a song’s cover versions is any indication of its popularity, the cool kids love this Cure single from ’83. Of late, “The Lovecats” has been notably redone by Cursive, Tricky, Tanya Donnelly and OK Go; while I haven’t heard all of those versions yet, I am quite enjoying the Hot Rats’ meaty, beaty, big and bouncy approach to it. If you like Adam Ant’s album “Friend or Foe,” I know you’re going to dig this.
10. “Queen Bitch” (David Bowie cover)
When the promo reels for Sean Penn’s movie “Milk” stormed out of the gates, the charge was led by one of the most exciting songs in recorded sound: David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch.” In lieu of a dramatically done-over re-version, the Hot Rats opt for a pretty straightforward, blistering take — save for a beautifully redone latter section, which utilizes a string section to maximum effect. Beautiful job, boys!
11. “E.M.I.” (Sex Pistols cover)
Toning down the Sex Pistols’ obnoxiousness, the Hot Rats manage to take the ferocious “E.M.I.” and craft a radio-ready sing-along in the key of Supergrass’ most winning contributions to the airwaves. Another must-hear moment for “Turn Ons.”
12. “Up the Junction” (Squeeze cover)
As was the case with “The Lovecats,” Squeeze’s “Up the Junction” has been covered by a veritable slew of artists. That said, Hot Rats’ “Up the Junction” is a dreary affair, the aural equivalent of staring at the sun through a thick, dust-particle haze. It’s quite mesmerizing, though it’s a bit of a downer compared to the rest of the “Turn Ons” material.
*Yes, this was lifted from the “Family Guy” episode “From Method to Madness” — not exactly the authority on art and culture, I realize, but this “pointed insight” has always stuck with me.
NEWS TO USE
“Turn Ons” is out now on Fat Possum Records. Visit www.fatpossum.com to hear the Hot Rats doing David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch.”