The track listing of Relient K’s Is for Karaoke covers EP makes one thing immediately apparent: this band has good taste in music. Excepting the oddball Justin Bieber cover (presumably included as a joke), these songs’ original artists stand among the coolest of the cool rock bands: Weezer, Gnarls Barkley, even They Might Be Giants. It’s a diverse tracklist sure to draw even casual fans to investigate this effort. But will they like what they find when they get there?
Unfortunately, Karaoke finds Relient K striking the wrong tone on at least half of its songs. The band embraces the worst trait of its pop-punk genre here – over-earnestness – and it knocks this album down a few pegs. Not that covers shouldn’t be heartfelt, but listen to singer Matt Thiessen’s delivery on opener “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” originally by Cyndi Lauper. It seems like his soul truly aches for those poor un-fun-having girls; “that’s all they really want” sounds less like a celebration of simplicity and more like a plaintive cry for somebody, anybody to let these ladies lighten up. That might work on a more artsy record, I suppose, but the tracklist and title of Karaoke imply a lighthearted nature, something “Girls” totally misses.
The same mistakes pervade Justin Bieber’s “Baby” and Weezer’s “Surf Wax America,” both of which are delivered far too seriously for their own good (the “Baby” cover, in fact, seems almost indistinguishable from Glee‘s in that respect). Tom Petty’s “Here Comes My Girl” strangely has almost the opposite problem. Here’s a song from Petty’s weaker synthy period that could use a little dramatic edge, and Thiessen seems about set to take it there when he vamps up to the chorus with an angry “I can tell the whole wide world to shove it.” Unfortunately, the energy totally drains from the song after that point, transitioning to a weak, piano-driven chorus straight out of Petty’s original recording. Relient K oddly chooses to make this one of the only appearances of straight piano on Karaoke, much for the worse.
The remaining three songs, however, are a whole lot of fun, and totally justify the existence of this record. Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” gets a bit of an aggressive makeover, augmenting its tempo and its edge but maintaining the critical vibe of the original; it also ends with a really cool, almost note-for-note recreation of Tears for Fears’ guitar solo. Elsewhere on the record, not even Relient K’s penchant for misreading a song’s tone can ruin their energetic cover of They Might Be Giants’ “Doctor Worm,” possibly because TMBG’s music thrives on the conflict between serious and lighthearted. By far, though, the most excellent song on here is the album’s take on Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Here’s a song that sounds really cool in a rocked-out arrangement (as the opening episode of The Voice showed us), and Relient K does the song total justice with a kinetic interpretation of Cee-Lo Green’s breakout song that maintains its original soul.
In the end, Is for Karaoke is a total mixed bag. Fans of Relient K’s usual style will probably enjoy it, while for more casual listeners it’s sure to deliver ups and downs. If nothing else, lovers of Tears for Fears, They Might Be Giants and Gnarls Barkley ought to check this EP out. If you like Cyndi Lauper, maybe not.
K is for Karaoke Tracklist:
1. Girls Just Want to Have Fun (Cyndi Lauper cover)
2. Here Comes My Girl (Tom Petty cover)
3. Baby (Justin Bieber cover)
4. Dr. Worm (They Might Be Giants cover)
5. Crazy (Gnarls Barkley cover)
6. Everybody Wants to Rule the World (Tears for Fears cover)
7. Surf Wax America (Weezer cover)
Buy ‘Relient K Is for Karaoke’ at iTunes or Amazon.
“Here Comes My Girl” is off Damn the Torpedoes, Tom Petty’s most commercially and critically successful album…Not to nitpick, but it definitely is NOT from a “weak synthy” part of his catalog.