First, the original plan changed drastically. At first, the project’s many contributions across the indie pop music landscape were to be winnowed down to a handful for a single disc release, but that process proved to be difficult to its Executive Producer Andrew Curry. What do you leave off? What do you keep? When the overwhelmingly enthusiastic and positive Kickstarter campaign proved there was an audience for the material, the plan changed from the pared down affair to offering the tracks that weren’t included as downloads, then the package was increased to two-discs. Having heard all of it, I can only say that Curry made the right decision.
There are tracks that I won’t regularly listen to, and that is not a knock on the performances provided on Drink A Toast To Innocence per se. These tend to be songs I never liked in the first place and the artists who took them on may have been uber-faithful to the originals. That, however, is not a problem as the one or two tracks this entails is miniscule in comparison to my “keepers,” and Various Artist tribute compilations always have this aspect to them, even the best of them. The nice thing is that I doubt these tracks will ever be unanimously agreed upon by any group of two-or-more listeners, so there really is something for everyone here.
What jumps out at the listener overall, especially in the hands of relatively younger artists, is the variety of melodies that lite rock offered. To say “better than it is now” sounds like an old man’s gripe but, in this case, it is true. Pop music today is dominated by a small handful of producers and writers who construct the beats over which the words are then dropped, and by having such a small gene pool from which so much material comes the same chord structures and progressions keep returning again and again. If you regularly go to convenience stores for your morning coffee and it sounds like the same song is repeated over and over, you’re not too far from the truth. So listening to these new versions of songs from the 1970s and early 1980s comes as a shock.
Of the best of the “faithful” songs, Linus Of Hollywood’s turn on Leo Sayer’s “More Than I Can Say” still has a nice modern punch to it and still forces the listener into a singalong before it is through. Throwback Suburbia’s “I Love You” recognizes that Climax Blues Band’s song was the best Badfinger song that Badfinger never made, and they rightly choose not to mess with a good thing. Bleu is a smart student of pop music and likely understood that a radical reinterpretation of Player’s “Baby Come Back” would have only sounded snarky and hipster-sarcastic. His version adds a couple of nice sonic touches, but mostly lets it stand as the blue-eyed soul track it always was.
Some of the songs that jump out at the listener most are the interpretations that lift songs that (at least in my opinion) arrived in sorry shape. I never was a fan of David Soul’s “Don’t Give Up On Us.” Lisa Mychols gives the tune a little more bite with a crunchy bed of guitar and thick vocal harmonies, revealing the urgency of trying to save a faltering relationship that the milquetoast original thoroughly lacked. Even more revelatory is Kelly Jones with England Dan and John Ford Coley’s “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight” which recasts the whole thing into a sweet country/folk ballad and draws emotional values out of lyrics that were, originally, just about a booty call. Lannie Flowers takes Orleans’ “Dance With Me” and turns it into nearly an oom-pah polka, bumping some major notes down to minor notes, and effectively knocking the track into shape.
Up to now my high-water mark for tribute compilations had been Sing Hollies In Reverse which also hit that nice balance between faithfulness and reinterpretation, but that was a host different artists tackling one group. What Drink A Toast To Innocence does well is to take a regularly maligned sub-section of popular music and represent it for what it usually was, behind the late-20th-Century production fetishes: a solid, long-lasting body of work built around unique melodies that are immediately recognizable no matter who is interpreting them. That is a valuable commodity, and this set celebrates that better than a 20-disc retrospective of the originals probably could.
Plus, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
You can hear samples from and pre-order Drink A Toast To Innocence by visiting the album’s Bandcamp site: http://monstersofliterock.bandcamp.com/