Supergrass, to the extent to which they have any kind of stateside reputation, exist in the minds of many as a Britpop also-ran. Not as intellectual as Blur in their heyday, nor as thuggish and brash as Oasis, Supergrass managed to find a scruffier, more playful kind of arena-ready simplicity that allowed them to avoid any bloated catastrophes like Be Here Now. Turn Ons, by Supergrass offshoot the Hot Rats, manages to retain that same sensibility.
The Hot Rats consist entirely of Supergrass singer/guitarist/frontman Gaz Coombes and Supergrass drummer Danny Goffey (the bass player must have been busy that week). Their material consists entirely of other bands’ songs. The results are split between genuine fun and ho-hum predictability, with a fortunate emphasis on the former. This dichotomy applies both to material and arrangements. No one will be surprised to learn, for example, that the guys from Supergrass like the Sex Pistols enough to cover one of their songs. Similarly, their version of David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” is more or less exactly like the original, only stripped down to a leaner guitar/bass/drums format. All it really does is remind you that “Queen Bitch” is really cool — then you pull out Hunky Dory and the Hot Rats are all but forgotten.
The Hot Rats’ version of “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)”, however, is the kind of reinvention that justifies the existence of covers albums in the first place. By writing an entirely new melody and replacing the signature riff with an airy two-chord acoustic vamp, the Hot Rats have transformed the song into a completely different animal, while retaining the original’s anthemic qualities. The only awkward moment is the substitution of “Hot Rats boys” for “Beastie Boys” in the third verse. (Hey, it still rhymes, right?)
Along the same lines, their version of “Love Is the Drug”, while maintaining Roxy Music’s disco sensibilities, changes the drug from glassy cocaine splendor to beer-and-weed rambunctiousness. The Hot Rats improve on the Cure’s “The Lovecats” by playing up the rhythmic aspect and propelling the song along with “Lust for Life”-style drums. Presenting Gang of Four’s “Damaged Goods” in an acoustic format teases out nuances that are much harder to discern in the abrasive original.
Other covers are less successful. The Doors’ “The Crystal Ship” would remain perfervid hogwash regardless of its presentation, but exaggerating the dynamic shifts and bombast doesn’t really help. (Full disclosure: I just plain don’t like the Doors. Someone else might dig this track.) Despite slight changes in instrumentation, new versions of “Pump It Up” and the Sex Pistols’ “E.M.I.” suffer from the “Queen Bitch” problem, and while they add a few new riffs to the Velvet Underground’s “I Can’t Stand It”, the finished product just kind of sits there. As for Pink Floyd’s “Bike”, well, no one can out-weird Syd Barrett. Any attempt to do so is bound to come up short, and actually releasing the results only draws attention to the divide. Of course, deranged psychedelia provides such a flawless counterpoint to the disquietingly childlike lyrics, so a stripped-down garage-rock version wouldn’t have worked either… maybe they just shouldn’t do that one.
Outside of the phenomenal misstep of “Bike”, though, Turn Ons remains high-spirited and fun throughout. Even if new versions of “Queen Bitch” or “Pump It Up” don’t do a whole lot to justify their existence, they don’t represent a net loss to humanity; they’re good songs, performed with love and conviction. The lasting impression is of a rock band — experienced but still energetic — screwing around in the studio or garage and playing some of their favorite tunes. Presumably, that’s the whole point; if so, they’ve succeeded admirably. Whether you want to stick around for the whole session is up to you. It’s worth at least dropping by.