“Want to review the Tony Sly tribute compilation?” they asked.
The gut told me that responding with an emphatic (though not so emphatic as to sound creepy or needy or both) “yes” was a no-brainer. A little back story: I’m been a long-time fan of No Use For a Name. As a teenager in the early 1990s, they were among the third tier of bands that ushered my suburban NH neighborhood into the world of punk rock (Green Day and the Offspring begat Social D, NOFX and Bad Religion, who in turn begat the prototypical ‘EpiFat’ catalogs). Green Day and the Offspring obviously transcended “punk” at the time, and Social D, Bad Religion and NOFX were sort of the elder statesmen of the next wave, the pillars upon which the sound of our generation was built. It was that third tier and its bands like NUFAN and Face To Face and Pennywise and Strung Out and Lagwagon that felt like it made the scene our own, that we were taking part in some sort of larger community.
In later, more mature years, Sly (alongside fellow scene vets like Joey Cape and Jon Snodgrass) ventured down the solo singer-songwriter path, his songs trending toward the introspective, melancholy variety, which was just fine by his legion of fans that themselves were aging, greying, getting softer in the middle, and realizing that perhaps life wasn’t turning our as our idealist selves had envisioned. As I’ve written on these pages before, news of his unexpected and untimely death last year cast a pall over the scene, leaving the community without one of the ‘good guys.’ When actively listening to Sly’s music (particularly his solo work) in retrospect through the prism that he is no longer with us, the melancholy meter gets cranked to 11.
Fast-forward a year or so, and details began to emerge of a tribute compilation being put together by Sly’s pal (and label boss) Fat Mike. A look at the finalized list of contributing artists and the songs they selected gave the first hint that this might be a tough listen. Not tough in the sense that it would be terrible; in fact, just the opposite. Some of Sly’s longtime friends, scenemates and frequent collaborators are present and well-accounted for, ready to not merely tug at your heart strings, but to anesthetize them in whiskey and set them ablaze. Case in point: album-opener “Biggest Lie,” as performed by the inimitable vocal talent that is (former Dance Hall Crasher) Karina Denike is sparse, moody and downright haunting. Keep the Kleenex handy for this one, kiddoes; we’re about to embark on a roller coaster of emotions.
What follows is more than two dozen tracks that are equal parts mournful and celebratory. If you, as a human, can listen to Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath team with Jon Snodgrass (who, in my opinion, should sing backing vocals on every song ever) for an acoustic rendition of “For Fiona” or Joey Cape and Scoprios doing “International You Day” without your eyes welling up at the very least, you may not, in fact, have a soul. The pain and loss that Cape and Snodgrass in particular convey for their fallen buddy is very real and very palpable. Similarly sparse are Frank Turner’s take on “Keira,” which sounds like it was recorded in minimalist fashion while strumming an acoustic on the bus after a show, and Brian Fallon’s Nebraska-esque rendition of the Sly solo track “Capo 4th Fret.”
Fret not, punk fans; it’s not all sadness and doom and gloom. Scene veterans and NUFAN compatriots from the last couple of decades are well represented, rousing covers galore. NOFX submits a pitch-perfect cover of the Sly solo track “The Shortest Pier,” which I’ve always thought contained some of the Fat Mike-est lyrics not penned by Fat Mike. Strung Out take one of the more uptempo, metal-infused classics from the NUFAN lexicon, “Soulmate,” and somehow double-time the already double-time leads. Bouncing Souls and Pennywise plug in and speed up traditionally acoustic Sly solo tracks “Homecoming” and “Devonshire & Crown” respectively, making them could pass seamlessly for a track from True North for the otherwise uninitiated.
Newer bands from more recent years, many of whom no doubt drew inspiration from No Use in their respective formative years, also submit spirited renditions of Sly-penned track. Simple Plan’s down-tempo, finger-snappy “Justified Black Eye” is one of the unexpectedly catchier songs contained on the compilation, unexpected for sure. Useless ID and The Flatliners prove they belong on a roster full of seasoned punk scene heavyweights on “Frances Stewart” and “Fireball.” As critical as I’ve been of Yellowcard on these pages in the past, their take on the solo Sly track “Already Won” is spot on, seemingly a perfect choice.
Some of the more enjoyable moments on the compilation are those times where a band truly made a Sly song their own, which at many times represents a 90-degree left turn from the way the songs were originally presented. Though “AM” isn’t traditionally a down-tempo rock steady tune as Mad Caddies would have you believe, Sly’s voice rings through loud and clear. Snuff’s mariachi-esque take on “On The Outside” is a perfect change of pace (though it would have perhaps fit better in the latter half of the album, where the change in sound and tempo would have been more pronounced), as is Old Man Markley’s bluegrass spin on “Feel Good Song Of The Year.” Get Dead, whose recent full-length is one of my favorites of the year even if its sound is incredibly difficult to classify, do a remarkably drunken yet somehow focused take on “Premedicated Murder” that almost out-Slys the original.
Compilation albums in general, and tribute albums specifically, can be a bit of a mixed bag. But with a release coming barely more than a year after Sly’s death, the wounds are still fresh for many of the artists who considered him a peer or an inspiration. As such, we’re left with an album that is full of the type of authentic emotion that was Sly’s calling card. The only real miss, I this writer’s opinion, is Alkaline Trio’s acoustic/metal hybrid take on “Straight From The Jacket,” which comes across not as bad, but as rushed or as a demo more than anything else. Lyrically, though, “Straight From The Jacket” is perhaps the most Alkaline Trio song in the NUFAN catalog, and Skiba does an admirable job of making it his. It just doesn’t really sound like an Alkaline Trio song, but maybe that’s okay.
What rings clear more than anything from repeated listens to the compilation is truly how many people Sly touched with his music, whether through No Use For A Name or through his solo work. One gets the impression that Fat Mike (or whomever was making the final decisions) could have come up with a roster to cover every page in the Sly songbook. While it remains difficult to know that we’ll never again hear new work from the voice that helped guide us through a generation, making us feel like we were all buddies in the process, his legacy and memory will no doubt carry forward for years to come.