Most reviews of tribute albums start with something about how tributes are a dicey proposition, and how the best tributes capture the spirit of the artist while offering a new spin on the material and blah blah blah blah. Right, all that, then.
The Stiff Generation is a different type of tribute from most. Instead of paying tribute to a single artist, this 24 (!) track set pays tribute to the glory years of Stiff Records, arguably one of the most influential and quirkiest record labels of the punk era. Anyone with a passing familiarity of Stiff knows that it was the early home of Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe was their house producer, and countless talents like Graham Parker, Madness, Ian Dury, and notable also-rans like Wreckless Eric and Rachel Sweet all called Stiff home for awhile.
So what about that whole “capturing the spirit” part? The set scores mixed marks. Many of the acts paying homage here are of the power-pop variety, and almost by definition these acts opt to closely recreate the original. That of course does mean that the versions lack a bit of the fire and freewheeling spirit found on most of the Stiff originals. But these artists don’t churn out such shabby versions, either. Here’s a case in point: Last year, a proper Nick Lowe tribute was popped out, and since this IS a Stiff Records tribute and Nick Lowe was one of Stiff’s most prolific and important artists, more songs from Lowe than from anyone else are featured here. But on that straight Nick Lowe tribute, entitled Labour of Love the focus was on his country-rock material, with lots of contemporary blues artists and roots rockers doing straight up and competent but bland renditions of many of his later period songs. The best tracks on that set were from people considered Lowe’s peers—Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Marshall Crenshaw—and people who have inherited Lowe’s dark sense of humor (Dar Williams’ rendition of “All Men Are Liars” was the album highlight).
The Stiff Generation in many ways serves to right the wrongs of that earlier compilation by featuring a lot of Lowe’s more vital early period material. Pat Buchanan’s (of the Idle Jets) stomping cover of “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass”, for example, turns the arty pop of the original into a messy stomper, and its one of the best reworkings here. The same goes for Matthew Sweet’s “Halfway to Paradise” and The Bigger Lovers’ “So It Goes”. The Lowe numbers truly steal the show here, and that makes sense as he was one of Stiff’s best songwriters. The Costello numbers, by contrast, don’t fare quite as well. The Anderson Council pop out an almost note-for-note cover of “Welcome to the Working Week”—that’s fine but doesn’t offer much that’s new—and Janas Hoyt and the Mary Janes cover of Costello’s tender “Alison” is a fragile, quiet take that’s interesting but doesn’t compare to the original.
Move away from the Lowe and Costello numbers and it’s a bit more dicey. However, one of the virtues of The Stiff Generation is how it manages to collect so many of these cool singles in one place. Wreckless Eric, an artist largely forgotten save his association with Stiff, is represented by Bill Lloyd’s cover of Eric’s one hit “Whole Wide World”. Lloyd cleans up the original substantially, but doesn’t sap it of its energy. The dark, new-wavey covers of Department S’s “Is Vic There?” (done here by The Trolleyvox) and Madness’ nervy “Baggy Trousers” (tackled here by Lisa Mychols of the Masticators) sound as recklessly dark as they should, while Nixon’s Head turn out a properly rocking version of Graham Parker’s “Stupefaction”.
So what’s wrong, then? Well, the biggest problem that any fan may experience is that—apart from Matthew Sweet—the average rock fan may not have a damn clue who any of these acts are. Some of them are regulars on the tribute record circuit (especially Bill Lloyd and Matthew Sweet, who would probably pay tribute to your mother if she asked them to), while others are virtually unheard of. Stiff devotees will want this, though, not just to hear what these ‘kids’ have done with their originals but to get the few original Stiff rarities that are sprinkled in here as bonus. There’s a rare live version of Ian Gomm’s “Hooked On Love” and Clive Gregson’s “Trouble with Love” demo both thrown in for good measure. And hey, if you don’t have a damn clue about Stiff records, this could be a fun place to start if only because it includes so many great singles from so many great songwriters. Remember: “If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a fuck.”