Many of you know how I consider this one of the finest movies ever made because it accurately nails the desolate and isolated conditions that thinking people found themselves in when the world when crazy in the 1980s. “Cult movie” does not describe a work of cinematic art that scoops up the narrative, shakes it out and shows its holes, then re-organizes it according to a broader and more realistic principle through which the artistry of the movie can make beauty out of dysfunction. To all of those who found themselves stranded in popular culture, caught between miserable careers and a constant crime wave of social collapse, hoping for some ray of light that could make sense or even comedy of it all, Repo Man delivered the goods.
Now, a dozen bands take on the original sound track, which back in the day featured bands as varied as Black Flag, Iggy Pop, Fear, Suicidal Tendencies and The Circle Jerks. That is a hard act to follow, especially since many of these songs went on to become classics in their own right, but American Laundromat Records assembled brave voyagers to give it a shot, and were gracious in providing us with this promotional release. With a release this varied, only a track by track view will work…
- Those Darlins – “Repo Man” (Iggy Pop): This track differs from the original mostly through the vocals, which take a candy-rock approach with ironic, saucy and sometimes surly female lead vocals that transform this song from the growly original into a more sinister take that approaches with soft sounds and turns into an acid monster.
- Polar Bear Club – “TV Party” (Black Flag): A faithful cover with overtones of punk nerd, this take on the well-known Black Flag anthem gives it a slightly faster tempo and more proficient guitars, but inserts vocals that sound like The Descendants back from a prison bash, capturing the surly of the original. Of note are the riot vocals which are both faithful and gleefully pure tribute.
- Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – “Institutionalized” (Suicidal Tendencies): Most of this song is spoken word, which is modified here to be more about peer pressure than parents, and now gets stitched over a skacore take on the Suicidal Tendencies light thrash original. That creates a kind of lounge environment which shows off the vocal performance more, and Palmer accelerates her performance to Shakespeare-in-the-Park levels, which makes this track more unnerving but also somewhat overstates what was originally more subtle. This works less well on the thrash parts of the vocals, which become more whiny than the desperate violence unleashed of the original.
- New York Rivals – “Coup d’Etat” (The Cirle Jerks): As if giving the Morrisey treatment to this punk rock classic, New York Rivals drop in a male crooner vocal taken to Diamanda Galas extremes, then treat the guitars more like a late 80s synth/industrial band, complete with blatant drum machine. The result is compelling as a pure sonic treatment.
- Black Francis & Spanish for Hitchhiking – “El Clavo Y La Cruz” (The Plugz): A covertly jazz-infused take on this atmospheric tune, this cover remains faithful while often unrecognizable with more of a Tejano sound designed to capture a live recording or at least the feel of one. Additional guitar texture gives this added power, but the more dramatic internal rhythmic shifts do less for it, although they do handily distinguish this version from the original.
- The Tellers – “Pablo Picasso” (Burning Sensations): An electro-lounge take on this crowd favorite proves enjoyable but puts too much emphasis on the vocal performance, which reduces the effectiveness of the song as a mad rush of insanity and makes it sound more like background music that fades into the indie-rock milieu. That aside, this song is well-executed and could easily introduce a new generation to this song without them even knowing it. Interesting rhythm guitar playing.
- Mike Watt & The Secondmen – “Let’s Have a War” (Fear): This approach reminds me of the style of Cop Shoot Cop or Big Black, executed by The Minutemen’s Mike Watt and unnamed musicians. The pounding keyboards and synthetic sounds make this song even more disturbing, as does Watt’s megaphone-styled vocals which sound like an apocalyptic news announcement more than a pop song.
- The Suicide Dolls – “When The Shit Hits the Fan” (The Circle Jerks): Playing this song on guitars more like a straight later hardcore-influenced punk rock song, and then doubling male and female vocals, The Suicide Dolls give this song a different life. It becomes more disaffected and less ironically humorous, also picking up the rhythms and pacing of underground after-hours clubs. The increased guitar presence makes this a more enjoyable listen than the original.
- Matthew Sweet – “Hombre Secreto (Secret Agent Man)” (The Plugz): Nothing wrong with this energetic and fluid take on the original song, but it loses the unique feel of it and may not replace it with anything more than a sense of disinterested passion for life. The vocals dominate the song, and a more precise take on its rhythms makes it more forceful.
- Moses Coltrane – “Bad Man” (Juicy Bananas): Essentially a spoken word piece over some background music, this song paralleled the rants by the character Lite as he introduced Otto to the rougher side of automobile repossession, as contrasted to the overly optimistic and detached screeds from Bud. This new cover introduces more aggressive guitars and voice-over quality vocals, causing this song to pick up momentum instead of being merely background noise.
- Weekend – “Reel Ten” (The Plugz): Whole swathes of Generation X still get misty-eyed when this song comes on, and no challenge is greater than taking on an emotional classic. This industrial-tinged take on the song keeps the mystery, sounding like a hybrid between Erasure and Sisters of Mercy with an eye for the epic, complete with Tangerine Dream styled space effects. Well done.
It would have been easy to botch this album or make it cute. Instead, whoever organized this took the time to seek out musicians who would make interesting contributions. In my view, the weakest tracks are the Amanda Palmer and Matthew Sweet, but none are incompetent. Taken as a whole, Tribute to Repo Man renovates these songs in a language that newer listeners and older fans alike can appreciate, creating new angles of approach to one of the more idiosyncratic and yet purposeful soundtracks ever created. Whoever these American Laundromat guys are, I hope they do more like this.