There’s something wonderfully appropriate about tribute albums for cartoons, warped musicians giving something back to one of the influences that warped them, and often these albums wring out moments of pure rejuvenation. For example, The Ramones’ recent cover of the Sixties’ Spider-Man theme was their best track in years, evoking the band’s sound circa 1979. Unfortunately the last couple of decades were something of a wasteland, both for cool cartoons and cool cartoon music—while there are numerous covers of the themes from Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and Speed Racer out there (Tip: Matthew Sweet’s covers of both are the best), few bands seem to be lining up to cover the Thundercats song or that rousing anthem from the godawful Hanna-Barbera Godzilla show. Cartoons rediscovered their connection to grooviness with the first stab of the theme from Ren & Stimpy with its Les Paul-ish guitar gymnastics over hyperkinetic hipster bongos. Since then cartoons have become once again a worthwhile endeavor to create, to watch, and to make mooky to.
One of the best of the current crop of animated product available for kids and their parents is Craig McCracken’s The Powerpuff Girls, the adventures of three superpowered five-year-olds who safeguard the beleaguered city of Townsville from an endless array of villains, demonic entities, and manga-scale monsters, and looking just adorable while kicking butt—sort of like Walter Keane children as written by Stan Lee. Funny, charming, hip, and often startlingly adult, the show has the same sort of multi-generational appeal as the old Batman show, due entirely to McCracken’s unabashed affection for the conventions of old comics and new anime and the inspirational power of postpunk bubblegum music. In his liner-note introduction to Heroes and Villains, McCracken cites the bands on the album as some of his greatest influences, and it’s clear that the admiration is mutual.
Heroes and Villains is meant to be listened to in sequence and in one sitting, as it constitutes a sonic Powerpuff Girls adventure, with the show’s opening and end title themes—the later a choice track by Bis—as bookends. Character voiceovers advance a fairly generic PPG plot: the city of Townsville is under attack by the Girls’ arch-enemy Mojo Jojo, a mutated mad-genius chimpanzee with an enormous brain and Toshiro Mifune’s diction, and as usual Our Heroines must Save The Day. The songs themselves are interior monologues by the various characters at each stage of the story, and almost all of them display insights that are remarkably thoughtful for sketches of cartoon characters, as well as being well-crafted poppy-funky stuff. The album’s highlight is a sequence of tracks about the Powerpuff Girls themselves: the scrappy Buttercup’s warrior exuberance is captured in Shonen Knife’s minimalist rave-up “Buttercup (I’m a Super Girl)”; team leader Blossom is shown trying to keep it together by intoning the danceable mantra “B.L.O.S.S.O.M.” by Komeda; and Dressy Bessy’s “Bubbles” is an infectious little piece of psychedelic optimism from the mind of the cutie-pie Girl. Other standout tracks are The Apples in Stereo’s very mod “Signal in the Sky (Let’s Go),” and The Sugarplastic’s retro-quirky ode to the Girls’ ever-worried father-figure Professor Utonium, “Don’t Look Down.”
The album has two surprises, one good, one disappointing. Frank Black and the Catholics check in with “Pray for the Girls,” a tripping, wordy meditation that seems a bit weightier than the rest of the songs on the album but is quite good. The same can’t be said for “Go Monkey Go” by Devo. It’s one of two meditations on Mojo Jojo, and while one would think that a P.O.V. piece about a megalomaniacal mutant monkey would be right up the Spudboys’ lyrical alley, this is pretty much a throwaway track, not even very danceable.
Still, there’s enough heroics all over this album to make it supremely listenable and, unlike the maudlin soundtracks to Disney features, it contains enough pop credibility that you don’t even have to hide your face when buying it. All in all, it’s a tangy and long-lasting piece of bubblegum.