Various Artists: Every Word: A Tribute to Let's Active
Trying to write about Let's Active without referencing Mitch Easter is kinda like trying to write about Wings without mentioning Paul McCartney; no matter how many musicians may pass through the group's ranks over the years, there's still that one core member without whom the band wouldn't score nearly as much attention. It's nothing against Faye Hunter, Sarah Romweber, Eric Marshall, Rob Ladd, Angie Carlson, or John Heames, all very talented musicians in their own right. It's simply that, as far as the general public is concerned, for all practical purposes, Mitch Easter IS Let's Active. It's also just as pointless to ignore the fact that, no matter how top-notch Let's Active's collected works may be, Easter's biggest claim to fame is less as musician than as producer, engineer, and/or mixer.
A genius of jangle, Easter has manned the boards -- or is that twiddled the knobs? -- for a long list of folks, including (but not limited to) the Connells (Boylan Heights), Marshall Crenshaw (Downtown), Stephen Duffy (Duffy), Game Theory (pretty much their entire discography), the Hang Ups (Second Story), Suzanne Vega (Solitude Standing), the Mockers (Living in the Holland Tunnel), Lucky Town (Welcome to Lucky Town), Waxing Poetics (Hermitage), and, oh, right . . . R.E.M. (Chronic Town, Murmur, Reckoning). Nonetheless, Let's Active did produce an EP (Afoot) and three very nice albums (Cypress, Big Plans for Everybody, and Every Dog Has its Day) during the '80s, and they certainly made their mark on the alternative scene, though they never really expanded their fanbase beyond that scene into the mainstream.
What I want to know is, exactly when did Let's Active evolve from being just another mid- to late '80s college rock favorite into being cult heroes worthy of a tribute album? Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that they're not worthy. I'm just wondering when the actual transition took place. It could be argued that it was a gradual thing over the course of time, egged on by the fact that copies of the group's out-of-print discs were going for beaucoup bucks on eBay and other auction websites. (I myself watched in astonishment as my original IRS pressing of the Cypress/Afoot CD went for upwards of a hundred dollars.) Certainly, when their discography received the reissue treatment from Collector's Choice earlier in 2003, the "cult heroes" tag was written in stone.
Personally, I think the formal turning point came in 1999, when Smash Mouth recorded a cover of "Every Word Means No" for Friends Again, the second collection of music from everyone's favorite Thursday night sitcom. The soundtrack might not have shifted mass units, but, like 'em or hate 'em, Smash Mouth's a big name, and, from a public exposure standpoint, that's almost as high-profile as, say, Sugar Ray covering Joe Jackson's "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" On Every Word: A Tribute to Let's Active, the duty to cover "Every Word Means No" falls to Bill Lloyd, late of the country duo Foster and Lloyd. His rendition is faithful to the original, but then, it's the lead track of the collection; if you're planning to get experimental, one generally saves that for later in the album, rather than scare folks off right away.
Thankfully, however, there's no major reinventing of the songs on this album, but that's not to say that some of the artists don't make the tracks all their own. Doug Powell's rendition of "Waters Part" sounds like it could've been one of his originals. The Don Dixon and Jamie Hoover collaboration on "Horizon" is a brilliant duet, but, given that both parties have worked with Easter over the years, it's no surprise that they'd have an idea how to best perform his material. Dixon's wife, Marti Jones, also pops up later in the track listing with the delightfully dark verses and uplifting chorus of "Room with a View".
Tommy Womack's "Make Up with Me" and Jerry Chapman's take on "In Little Ways" are top-notch. Creative missteps are few and far between; the tempo of King Fly's "Every Dog Has Its Day" is a bit off-putting, but the song's hook saves the day. The most surprising song not covered by anyone is "Easy Does", but, hell, there are already 20 songs on here; you've got to stop somewhere.
Like most of the tribute albums coming out of the underground pop community nowadays, Every Word takes several relatively-major names, surrounds them with many other up-and-coming pop musicians as well as a few folks whose names don't even remotely ring a bell, and the whole lot of them pay their respects to a group who never saw much in the way of commercial success.
The end result serves not only as a thoroughly enjoyable listen for fans of Let's Active but, for those who might not have been terribly familiar with the group's back catalogue, it also serves as a fine introduction and, at least in this reviewer's case, makes one want to dig up Every Dog Has Its Day and give it another spin to see if the original version of "Horizon" is really as good as Don Dixon and Jamie Hoover's rendition makes one think it might be.