If Petra Haden has any guilt about singing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”, you can’t tell from the exuberant way she performs it, opening the Guilt by Association compilation, one built around the conceit of indie/alternative musicians performing “guilty pleasure” mainstream pop songs. “Performs” is the right word for what Haden does with Journey. As on her 2005 album Petra Haden Sings the Who Sell Out, she sings essentially all parts of the song—whammy-bar-heavy guitar solos included—a cappella. She does so with no less reverence than she tackled the Who, and again nails the spirit of the song, the X factor that makes even hyper-critical music-nerd types want to sing along when it comes on the car radio. She even throws in an allusion to Wilson Phillips’ ballad “Hold On”. Is this her revealing what her second choice of cover song would have been? Or is she demonstrating that she has no reservations about singing dumb pop songs of any genre, swiftly poking a hole through the very notion of guilty pleasures?
As a concept, the “guilty pleasure song” seems rather old-fashioned: a relic from a time when music listeners were less promiscuous with genres, when rock fans in particular had clear mental dividing lines about what was “real music.” That way of thinking is more unfashionable with each passing day. Credit that to whatever cause you prefer (hip-hop, the Internet), but it’s entirely a positive change. Does that make this album seem anachronistic? Not at all. Haden isn’t the only participating artist who tackles this project with pleasure, not guilt. Most of them approach the songs at hand sans irony or disgust, without covering their shame with winks and nudges. On the whole, they don’t even fall into the common trap of taking a fun, fluffy pop song and draining it of the fun and fluff, to show the supposed deep meaning within. Or when they do, they still manage to get across some of the original’s pop appeal; Geoff Farina’s quiet, serious “Two Tickets to Paradise” doesn’t have the rush of Eddie Money’s original, but it still gets that hook into your brain. Luna slows down Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up”, plays it in typical dreamy style, but proceeds more and more with the original song’s spunk and rhythm, so that the track reveals itself, almost, it seems, against the band’s will.
And the most overtly earnest cover on the album is also one of the best. Mark Mulcahy sings Shania Twain’s “From This Moment On” with an understanding of its purpose. It’s a slow-dance song: a prom song, a wedding first dance. Through Mulcahy’s atypical singing voice—light as air, yet raspy, a combination that somehow makes him resemble both a ghost and a grizzled hitchhiker—the song lifts off, and stirs the heart. Yet it’s still completely cheesy; there’s no escaping it. The best songs on this album follow that pattern: performers mold the songs to their own style, but without ignoring the reason people like the originals in the first place.
Superchunk’s version of Destiny Child’s “Say My Name” is a perfect example: they pound through it just like they did to Sebadoh and Magnetic Fields songs back in the day, and the song fits right in. Without losing the sentiment or the hook, the song smoothly adapts to its new environment. It’s as good of a sing-along as ever. The Concretes’ cover of Take That’s “Back for Good” meets similar success, using a boy-band pop ballad and showing it’s not that different at its core from their own sort of pop balladry. The Mooney Suzuki play Cher’s “Just Like Jesse James” surprisingly straight (almost like a karaoke cover) and make the song sound tough and cool, just like Jesse James. Will Oldham’s version of Mariah Carey’s “Can’t Take That Away” is as puzzling as the man himself, and just as solipsistic as his own songs; but the strings and beat survive the transition, keeping the song almost funky, a word I’ve never even considered using to describe his music before.
Certainly, interesting damage can be done through a cover song that purposefully attacks the original, but Guilt by Association mostly has a different tone about it: it’s a celebration of the elasticity of a pop song and the universal impact of a simple pop melody, especially one that’s been played again and again, across the globe. Sometimes the more a song is played, the more power it takes on. Pop songs become their own unique means of communication, across time and geography. Songs we’ve heard enough make a permanent imprint on our consciousness—you’ll find you can sing along to a song you’ve haven’t heard in decades. Even a song you hate. That’s the appeal of karaoke, of jukeboxes, or radio, of a television show like The Singing Bee (the best dumb, disposable summer show in ages). And it’s part of the appeal of Guilt by Association.
Another part is surprise, hearing singers perform unexpected songs. And another is the familiarity we have with singers’ voices; it’s no coincidence that the best songs here are those where familiar singers sing familiar pop songs that I’ve never heard them sing before, and wouldn’t have expected to hear. It’s also why other sections of the album feel like filler; why the songs that make the weakest impression are those where a singer I’ve never heard before sings a song I’ve never heard before: Goat singing Fall-Out Boy, Porter Block singing a song from High School Musical, Casey Shea singing System of a Down. Maybe those are the least interesting covers, or maybe they’re just least interesting to me. It’s like when you’re trapped in a karaoke room with someone who insists on singing songs you’ve never heard before. That’s not what it’s all about.