The circumstances surrounding The Songs of Tony Sly: A Tribute are nothing if not wholly unique. While its purpose is completely noble — proceeds from the compilation will benefit Sly’s wife and two young daughters, Kiera and Fiona — tribute albums have rightfully earned a reputation as well-intentioned, but ultimately uninspired collections of half-assed covers, often curated by small labels desperate for name recognition. This decidedly isn't that, but the separation, at least from a critical standpoint, can be difficult.
Sly’s shocking, sudden death in August 2012 at 41 left a void in the punk scene that will never be filled again, least of all by a tribute album. His music inspired so many people from so many different sections of punk, the expectations for this record are almost impossibly high, to the point where it’d be unfair to judge its content in the context of a "traditional" tribute album. Still, as a tribute, The Songs of Tony Sly: A Tribute is a pretty fitting, and often arresting eulogy on behalf of a still-mourning scene.
Sly’s wide-ranging influence is immediately apparent as Karina Deniké’s sparsely haunting “A Biggest Lie” opens the compilation. By using little more than her voice, the former Dance Hall Crashers co-vocalist puts Sly’s lyrics at the absolute forefront of her interpretation, creating a hell of a table-setter in the process. It segues nicely into Mad Caddies’ airy rocksteady version of “AM,” too. Later on, Tim McIlrath of Rise Against and Jon Snodgrass team up for an acoustic take on “For Fiona,” McIlrath’s stark vocals complementing the more soulful, weathered voice of Snodgrass quite nicely. Frank Turner’s interpretation of “Keira” is smartly gaunt, as well; it sounds as if it was recorded roadside, with the faintness of cars whirring by accompanying Turner’s gentle voice and guitar. Brian Fallon of the Gaslight Anthem injects some harmonica into “Capo 4th Fret,” adding even more solemnity than his somber vocal take can provide. Alkaline Trio offer a Damnesia-style spin on “Straight From The Jacket,” with Matt Skiba’s commanding vocals and a powerful guitar solo at the forefront.
Elsewhere, Snuff’s Latin-fueled take on “On The Outside” is an awesome curveball, with infectious rhythms, busy percussion and abrasive horns. The goosebump-inducing, multi-part harmonies of Old Man Markley’s “Feel Good Song of the Year” are also a highlight. Dramatic strings accompany Swingin’ Utters’ rootsy version of “Not Your Savior” with positive results.
Even certain bands who influenced Sly and No Use For A Name pay tribute; Bad Religion’s version of “Let it Slide” is relatively straightforward, but hearing Greg Graffin respectfully croon Sly’s lyrics is a lot of fun. NOFX basically make “The Shortest Pier” their own while augmenting the anthemic nature of the original’s chorus.
Sly’s indelible impression on the enduring EpiFat sound is apparent in droves, too. Strung Out, whose rise on Fat Wreck Chords was concurrent with that of No Use For A Name, do their best impression on “Soulmate” while also injecting their own slightly heavier, harmonic-heavy sound into its backbone. Lagwagon’s cover of “Discomfort Inn” accomplishes much the same, with Joey Cape — one of Sly’s best friends and biggest boosters — sounding more invested than he has in years in this setting.
The inclusion of Yellowcard and Simple Plan on The Songs of Tony Sly: A Tribute caused some initial consternation among some holier-than-thou punk fans (imagine that). The truth is, No Use For A Name’s music, especially their later, poppier material, was a direct influence on those bands. Anyone who doesn’t hear it is either deaf or in denial. Furthermore, the inclusion of those two bands might inspire new fans to pick up the compilation, which not only benefits Sly’s family but potentially turns them on to his music. How is that a bad thing? To their credit, Yellowcard play it straight with “Already Won,” injecting their own crafted sense of energy into what was originally a fairly somber acoustic number. Conversely, Simple Plan’s take on “Justified Black Eye” is poppier and sparser than the original, which places emphasis on the song’s eternally important lyrical message.
The Songs of Tony Sly: A Tribute is a triumph, not to mention a surprisingly comprehensive collection and worthy interpretation of Sly’s legacy. It’s sometimes fun, often somber, but never not respectful or entertaining.
Joey Cape reappears with Scorpios (who also featured Sly prior to his death) on closer “International You Day,” which lyrically seems sadly prescient now:
Where did I go wrong?
I should have told you from the start
that I'm closer than you think
when we're apart
nothing that I've tried
is as simple as this line
But without you
my life is incomplete
my days are absolutely gray
and so I'll try
let your heart know for sure
that I have so much more to tell you
every single day