It's a plain fact that most every dedicated music-obsessive has a guilty pleasure or two, stuffed away in the bottom of a CD case, or hidden on a years-old unlabeled tape. My own guilty pleasure -- a sincere fondness for Sublime albums -- has morphed more accurately into a plain-old "pleasure" over the past few years. So imagine my surprise, and especially my suspicion, when A Tribute to Sublime appeared in my mailbox.
The album's formula is hardly novel: Musicians who once revered Sublime, and especially its lead singer, Bradley Nowell, who died in 1996 from a heroin overdose, here have a chance to wish the band farewell on record. And like many tribute albums, some of this disc's cover songs are stinkingly bad, the far-and-away worst being Camper Van Beethoven's "Garden Grove." Which is a goddamned shame, because while "Garden Grove" is probably one of Sublime's catchiest reggae-inspired numbers ever, CVB's version is delivered with such horrifyingly off-key vocals that one wonders which tone-deaf producer allowed it to be committed to tape in the first place.
Also a disappointment is Avail's frustratingly low-energy version of "Santeria." How such a furious punk band as Avail can deliver a cover song this slow and uninspired -- especially compared to the original -- is beyond me.
But thankfully, not all is lost. And interestingly, some of the very best interpretations on this album come from bands you've probably never heard of, such as Bargain Music, whose tempo-juggling "Get Out" I've listened to probably 100 times over the past few weeks. The Ziggen's "Paddle Out," too, is simply superb -- like all of Sublime's music, it's an easy mix of reggae, hip hop and punk rock that, in this case, might even be better than the original.
The clear show-stealer, though, is Ozomatli's surprisingly good-natured version of "April 29th, 1992," a fuming beast of an anthem about the L.A. riots. Ozomatli is an L.A. band itself, known for its strong Latino-multiculturalism and its wonderfully precise horn section. As the song unfolds, it's hard not to imagine Ozomatli rioting and looting in the streets itself, as Bradley Nowell claims to have done.
Ultimately, though, it probably won't matter much to anyone but Sublime fans that most of this tribute is so amusing and so creatively arranged. None of these songs sounds much like the one that comes before or after it, which is most likely a good thing if you know the words and want to sing along, but not so good if you've never cared much for Sublime in the first place.
In other words, highly recommended for Sublime addicts only. Newcomers should tread lightly, and start with the originals. But who knows? Your soon-to-be-favorite guilty pleasure may only be a quick trip to the record store away.