First thing’s first: The entire concept behind the Guilt By Association is irreparably flawed. That there is guilt somehow implied or earned by indie-rock bands with sales totals barely hitting (some not even close to) six figures covering songs by INXS, Billy Joel or Phil Collins is representative of a type of bankrupt irony that seems to posit that being a buzz band from 2006 somehow makes you more “authentic” and less “guilty” than a dude famous for wearing weird sweaters and having a bad haircut. It’s a lame concept that capitalizes on some “correct” taste that no real person actually has.
That being said, this second edition of the Guilt By Association series is stronger than the first version. A few of the covers are even pretty solid. Cassettes Won’t Listen’s faithful cover of INXS’s “Need You Tonight” adds some low end and somehow approaches the sexiness of the original despite being understated, and Robbers on High Street’s cover of New Edition’s “Cool It Now” finds a soft, tender side to the song that in their hands sounds like an old Motown staple instead of a late ‘80s R&B classic.
Despite his irritating vocal affectations (he sounds like he’s sobbing and hiccupping at the same time), Max Vernon’s take of Katy Perry’s ode to faux-Lesbianism is far more subversive than the original, as it is from the perspective of a gay man trying heterosexuality on for a kiss. Frightened Rabbit’s forlorn, broken re-jiggering of N-Trance’s “Set You Free” is the set’s highlight. Somehow the young Scottish band took a Jock Jam heavyweight and made it into a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on their studio albums.
But the rest of the 14-song set doesn’t fair as well. My Brightest Diamond apparently thought that “Tainted Love” needed moody violins and multitracked vocals and a removal of its signature bass line, Matt Pond PA’s “I’m Not Okay” out-emos My Chemical Romance’s original. But Francis and the Lights win the most inessential crown with their cover of Kanye West’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” There is one truly awful song covered on the compilation, and that’s the Forms’ somehow worse version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (also known as the 20th century up until 1988, as according to Billy Joel).
The worst song on the compilation is Takka Takka’s complete butchering of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” a song so idiosyncratic that it should never be covered by any band, least by a band that still hasn’t decided whether or not it would like to be the Band or the Talking Heads. The original is totemic, atmospheric and moody, while Takka Takka’s is angsty, twangy and void of any of the emotion that made the original great.
And that perhaps highlights the underlying problem with the collection as a whole: None of the performers (with the exception of Frightened Rabbit) here are capable of pulling off the emotionality of the source material, leaving the set seeming like a meaningless exercise of “ironic” covers that are incapable of approaching the quality of the source material. That’s the only thing anyone involved with this has to feel guilty about.