Artist: Relient K
Title: Is for Karaoke
Label: Mono vs. Stereo
In a 1987 cover story about R.E.M., Rolling Stone pointed out the alternative group’s unlikely live rendition of Foreigner front-man Lou Gramm’s solo hit “Midnight Blue”— “the crowd laughs uneasily, then responds to the anthemic chords, while . . . the band plays hard on a song they really do like.” And therein lays the essence of this pure fun, forget-the-coolness-factor covers album from Relient K, Is for Karaoke.
On one hand, you know there’s a laugh in recording a new version of Justin Bieber’s “Baby.” On the other, you keep hitting the repeat button because singer Matt Thiessen really has found the song’s emotional core, and the band pounds it out as potently as one of its own hits. The same goes for Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”—although Hawk Nelson has done this tune as well, so the idea’s shine has worn off a little.
Sometimes it’s clear Relient K just has a special place in its collective heart for a song, recreating it down to the original’s distinct sounds as on Toto’s adult contemporary staple “Africa,” ‘80s nugget “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” (Tears for Fears), '90s alt-rocker “The Distance” (Cake), and the more recent Gnarls Barkley mega-smash “Crazy.”
The overall selection stays true to the band’s own defining traits as well. Putting a light run of They Might Be Giants’ “Doctor Worm" so close to the sincere “Here Comes My Girl” (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) reflects Relient K’s perfected silly to serious dynamic. Frequently using Thiessen’s piano playing to incorporate softer themes into their punk-pop roots, the guys take a good shot at Chicago’s “You’re the Inspiration.”
If some of the cuts seem less inspired—“Interstate Love Song” (Stone Temple Pilots) could have rocked harder—Relient K makes up for it in generosity as Is for Karaoke features a very filling fourteen tracks; we haven’t even talked about the covers of other expected influences like Weezer, Third Eye Blind, Nada Surf, and The Wallflowers.
That’s all to say there is something for everyone here. Devoted fans of Relient K will jump at these songs, many of them road tested on tour through the years. Casual listeners may just enjoy tricking people into liking a Justin Bieber tune or hearing an old favorite in a new light.
And as the album title suggests, we can all feel free to sing along.
Listen on Spotify while you read.