Hard as it may be to throw together a good covers album – lest we forget the recent debacle of Puddle of Mudd’s unholy, mind-meltingly awful Re:(disc)overed - it’s difficult to argue that, at least within the realm of rock music, bands that perform in the pop-punk style have the best shot at album-length success. It’s a hard balance to strike – you have to fight the right tonal balance between sincerity and irony, never veering too far in either direction, and you have to make the song your own without mangling it. Slavish recreation and lazy xeroxing simply won’t fly. Which is where pop-punk has a distinct advantage: the punk allows for boundless energy without an overt concern for polarizing innovation, and the pop allows for a glossy sheen and pleasing vocal harmonies. (Indeed, the most recent successful example of this sort of thing is Streetlight Manifesto’s punchy, fun 99 Songs of Revolution, and that’s a band that operates within the genre of ska music, pop-punk’s pot-smoking second cousin.)
Which is where Relient K marginally succeed where Puddle of Mudd failed. Is For Karaoke combines two limited-edition EPs by the Christian-friendly pop-punkers into one easily-digestible platter consisting of all of the covers that the K pepper their live set with, presumably to help people forget that they’re at a Relient K concert. Relient K’s steadfast refusal to reinvent the wheel (or to even use a wheel that literally millions before them haven’t used) makes them a singularly uninteresting band in the vein of New Found Glory or Simple Plan or Good Charlotte or any number of pop-punk bands that nobody cares about after puberty; but they’re not abrasive to the ears, and when their amicable presence and genre-competent musicianship is married to a set of tunes that are well-liked and melodically solid, the results are surprisingly agreeable.
As far as song selection goes, Is For Karaoke sounds like one of those Punk Goes Pop compilations, albeit one where all the covers are actually performed by the same band, instead of merely sounding like they’re performed by the same band. Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” finds its burbling synth lines replaced with chunky guitars, midtempo ’90s rockers like “One Headlight” and Third Eye Blind’s lovely “Motorcycle Drive-By” are performed ably with the tempos sped up and the harmonies tightened, and a less-ironic-than-you’d-probably-think stab at Justin Beiber’s “Baby” slyly illustrates the hairline separation between teen-pop and rock music by sounding, appropriately, as much like a Relient K song as it does a Beiber jam.
That said, the K fail when they stumble into that age-old trap of lazy recreations. Cake’s “The Distance”, for example, takes literally zero chances with arrangement and tone, sounding like (true to the record’s title) mere karaoke; similarly, low-stakes reconstructions of Tom Petty’s “Here Comes My Girl”, Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, and STP’s “Interstate Love Song” come and go, weightless, leaving no impression. A late-in-the-album take on that song that nobody ever covers ever, Toto’s “Africa”, threatens to be similarly fly-by-night, but the guys nail the harmonies nicely, and drop out and build back up during the song’s climax, so the band earns its goodwill back by song’s end. Really, the only song that ends up being particularly egregious is their take on Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”, which isn’t so much bad as it is a solemn reminder that Relient K vocalist Matt Theissen simply doesn’t have the pipes to tackle Cee-Lo (few do), and you just kind of feel bad for the guy as he resorts to an airy, barely-there falsetto during that pulverizing chorus.
Which all adds up to Is For Karaoke simply existing as an agreeable, modestly singable covers record as opposed to a dumbfoundingly awful one. It’s far from an accomplishment – really, these covers could have all been accomplished by a long night in the studio – but it’s mildly likable, and, for a lot of people, probably preferable to listening to an album full of original Relient K songs. This one’s not a revolution, but at least it features a They Might Be Giants jam.