Tribute albums devoted to legendary, almost untouchable musicians generally go one of two routes: hyper-reverent or purposefully subversive. Groups either stick so faithfully to the original songs that they beg the question “Why even bother?” or they go so far out of their way to be different that they cloak the song in a genre seemingly 180 degrees away from the original genre (like a polka version of a rock song, for example). Give the People What We Want, a 19-artist tribute to the Kinks, tends towards the first route, with a few exceptions.
The bulk of the songs here take pretty straightforward approaches. Then again, when you’re looking at music as awe-inspiring as most of the Kinks’ catalogue (at least not counting much of the ‘70s and onward) is, the temptation to not mess things up too much is understandable. That said, the best moments here come when artists like their own personalities and musical sensibilities merge with that of Ray Davies and his companions, pushing the songs into unique places.
The artists on Give the People come mostly from the Seattle area, or at least the Pacific Northwest, as do the three labels that co-released the album. They’re generally rock bands, though some lean more towards the punk side of things and some lean more pop. The songs come from throughout the Kinks discography, though there’s a particular emphasis on their first few albums. And, as the trend seems to go these days with tribute albums, there’s a preference for lesser-known album tracks over singles. You won’t find “Lola”, “You Really Got Me” or “All Day All Night”. That fact gives the album a certain noble side, as anyone but diehard Kinks fans are likely to find great songs they hadn’t heard before.
About a third of the album is filled with straight-ahead pop-rock versions of Kinks songs, from groups like Young Fresh Fellows, The Fallouts, The Congratulators, Mudhoney, The Minus 5 (with Ken Stringfellow on lead vocals), Model Rockets and The Fastbacks. Those last three groups’ tracks (“Wicked Annabella”, “Ring the Bells” and “Waterloo Sunset”) are especially impressive for some reason—not because the groups do anything especially new with the songs, just because the groups are so good at what they do. That level of talent combined with some of the greatest rock songs ever written makes for highly enjoyable listening.
Another batch of groups here add a level of hard-rock power and noise to the mix, without straying far from the original songs. Murder City Devils give an extra warped crunch to “Alcohol”, C Average rip through the instrumental “Revenge”, The Pinkos fly into the already killer rocker “Brainwashed”, and The Briefs do a goofy punk version of “Come Dancing”. Like the more traditionally rock songs, these are fun and entertaining but not earth-shattering: good listening but nothing that you must here right now.
The other groups on the album—Mark Lanegan, Baby Gramps, Heather Duby, Jon Auer, Larry Barrett, The Makers, and Nikol Kollars go further away from the originals stylistically, perhaps just because their own music diverges more from the British Invasion than some of the more rock-related artists. While a couple of these tracks don’t impress me too much (especially Baby Grumps’ bluesy Waits-isms and The Makers’ overblown art-rock), some of them are the high points of the album, tapping into especially magic feelings and forces by amplifying aspects of the original songs that aren’t right on the surface. Mark Lanegan turns “Nothin in the World Can Stop Me Worrying ‘Bout That Girl” into a gorgeous blues ballad, giving the lyrics a darker feeling than in the Kinks’ more rocking original. Jon Auer’s take on “Fancy” (not an especially deep song in its original form) merges a sublime vocal sensitivity with sparse rock rhythms to great effect. Larry Barrett brings out the country-blues side of “Act Nice and Gentle”, Heather Duby gives “The Way Love Used to Be” a dreamy poignancy, and Nikol Kollars turns “I Got to Sleep” into a slick but heartfelt R&B track.
As the title indicates, Give the People What We Want: The Songs of the Kinks works mostly because of the songs. Kwab Copeland’s assertion in the liner notes that “Waterloo Sunset” “remains the best song written by anybody ever” isn’t too far off. Of course it’s silly to say that any song is the best ever, but the Kinks’ songs have something really special about them, something that makes each one feel like the best you’ve ever heard, even decades after they were written, and even when they’re coming to you courtesy of other performers.