Various Artists - SCORE!

Merge, 2009
[rating:5/10]

In what is a pretty cool project in its concept, Merge put out its 20th anniversary box set with this, a compilation of covers, as a bonus.  Five years ago, their Old Enough to Know Better: 15 Years of Merge Records was a well-stocked 3CD collection, so this ambitious undertaking was highly anticipated. Yet, this SCORE! missed the mark.

The album feels a little like a love letter to Mac McCaughan (of Superchunk and Portastatic) as 25% of the songs are covers of his work. Unless you are already a diehard Superchunk fan, this is not going to endear you—the offerings by Death Cab for Cutie, Ryan Adams and Les Savy Fav are frustrating to listen to.

The programmed drum machine on Okkervil River’s “All You Little Suckers” is really distracting and has a cheesy junior-high hip hop quality to it. Then again, East River Pipe, the auteurs of the original are remembered for a song so lovingly titled “Shiny, Shiny Pimpmobile.”  Maybe the inanity is a throwback joke to which some people are not privy.

By far the biggest disappointment on the record is the absolutely dreadful cover of Arcade Fire’s “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”.  Presumably, if you’re a rabid fan of the extremely lo-fi Times New Viking, this might be a treat for you, but to this relative newcomer, it was unpalatable in its distorted, unmelodic and generally tinny expression of what was originally a fairly epic, well-orchestrated, and above all, well-mixed tune. There are times when songs should not be covered. This is one of those times.

Several  tunes are good turnouts:  the Ted Leo & the Pharmacists version of Bob Pollard’s “The Numbered Head” is begging to be included in the next Guitar Hero and is altogether a good meeting of artists. Bill Callahan (Smog) strongly commands Versus’ “Santa Maria” and there’s some well-layered piano in the background that adds a certain something.  Similarly, The Mountain Goats’ “Drug Life”, The New Pornographers’ “Don’t Destroy This Night” and Laura Cantrell’s “Cowboy on the Moon” are all decent offerings.

The biggest gem on the album seems to be the Tracey Thorn (of Everything but the Girl fame) and Jens Lekman version of The Magnetic Fields’ “Yeah! Oh Yeah!” Thorn’s voice was a welcome surprise; it’s been absent from the scene since her solo record in 2007. Lekman and Thorn seem to blend well together; it would be nice to hear more collaborations between these two (or, rather, is it just the nature of the Magnetic Fields’ love song?).

Merge Records should be commended for the cleverness of SCORE!, curated by their own artists, and especially for the charitable proceeds that it will generate.  If you’re an outsider to Merge, there are likely enough tunes on the album to please you, but nothing remarkable. If you’re a diehard Merge fan, then this album (and presumably, the 14cd box set) is for you.