One thing I've learned from listening to a lot of Japanese punk bands is that they love to sing fast, and they'll bravely do that in English, even if it means stumbling over some words in the process. This is common on the all-Japanese artists collection Let's Talk About Origins: A Tribute to Lagwagon, where odd pronunciation and skipping or editing of certain lyrics abounds. For example, Scream changes the first line of "Twenty Seven" from "I hope you didn't mind when I saw you...turn into nothing less than nothing new" to just "turn into nothing less than nothing new", and Secret 7 Line changes the end of "Black Eyes" from "everyone forgives, everyone forgets" to just "everyone forgets, everyone forgets." Maybe they forgot the "forgives"? Some of the more amusing pronunciation tweaks are "faith" sounding more like "face" in "Black Eyes" and "anything" becoming "any sing" in SMN's "E. Dagger" cover. These changes can be distracting, but ultimately I found them endearing. They clearly arose from the efforts of bands just trying their best to sing fast despite the language barrier. I respect that and appreciate how it has lead to new versions of old songs that are unique in a fun way.
While the bands may fumble a bit with lyrics, they're confident and talented enough musically to add some cool instrumental flourishes. Secret 7 Line expands the melody of "Black Eyes" to make it extra catchy; Locofrank appropriately inserts some grand drumming into the intro of the epic "May 16"; and in a truly inspired move, First of All reinterprets the opening and closing verses of "Sleep" as ska. The result is a song with a propulsive, high-octane midsection sandwiched between more mellow, upstroke-heavy bookends. Like all of my favourite covers of good songs, it keeps what made the song appealing in the first place while presenting it in a new and fresh way.
My favourite cover on the compilation is the first: "After You My Friend." It disappointed me that the original's first notes (which I believe are some of the most loved and iconic in Lagwagon's catalogue) were left out, but thankfully they appear when expected later in the song. After I heard this song would be covered, what I was most curious about was how its musicians would handle the whimsical interlude in the original. Remember that part where it suddenly sounds like Hawaiian or elevator music? I don't know how they did it, but for me, Lagwagon perfectly evoked the feeling of being in a supermarket during this sequence. The serenely droning rhythm, the ruffling sound and the chime always make me think of cash registers, scanners and grocery bags. Instead of trying to copy this wonderfully ambiguous flight of fancy, Dustbox rocks a drum windup, then delivers its melody faster through a rollicking guitar solo.
There are also references to songs that didn't make the cut. Dustbox closes "After You My Friend" with the beginning of "Gun in Your Hand" in a clever allusion to the fact that the two tracks bleed into each other on Let's Talk About Feelings, and Sorry for a Frog sticks the start of "Falling Apart" 45 seconds into "Razor Burn." The chords fit surprisingly well there, but while this was a cute touch, it made me sad that no one did a whole cover of "Falling Apart."
Some bands do better than others. The vocals are rather disjointed in "Angry Days," but not terrible, and I actually like Slime Ball's melancholy yet bracing version of "Smile" more than the original.
Aside from the big differences mentioned so far, the songs are all very faithful to their source material, with a few minor exclusions (I miss the "forget about the punks" spoken word intro to "Bye for Now") and some welcome melodic deviations for variety.
I think there are only two really weak songs on the compilation. "Love Story" just feels off in pacing and vocals. There's some novelty to it because of the female vocals, but they're a little flat. "Mr. Coffee" was the biggest disappointment for me. I never thought someone could screw up such an enthrallingly hilarious and fun song, but No Hitter's version is poorly conceived. The instrumentals and vocals don't gel together well and the way it builds towards the end of the song by repeatedly fading out, then going louder, then fading out again is irritating.
Aside from those two tracks, I was happy with this release. It never quite reaches the heights of the best songs on the Japanese tributes to Weezer and ALL, but it is more consistent overall. Taken as a whole, the compilation serves as an excellent reminder of what a tremendous career Lagwagon has had and what dynamic musicians they are. Being a band of many facets, they can write self-deprecatingly funny songs just as brilliantly as ones that eloquently convey heartbreak, frustration, criticism and optimistic reflection. Lagwagon hasn't officially broken up, but with no full-length album since 2005, original members leaving and Joey Cape enjoying a solo career, I'm not sure if they'll be active much longer (at least as recording artists). Whenever they do call it quits, they'll leave behind a stellar body of work. With its title and content, Let's Talk About Origins: A Tribute to Lagwagon sweetly emphasizes how powerful and influential that work has been. In addition to being a fine retrospective of the versatility and depth of Lagwagon's music from 1990 and 2002, it's also a showcase for some young bands who display the same kind of energy and inventiveness as their heroes. A real treat for all Lagwagon fans who like to "pull over for nostalgia."
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