Album in Depth: Have a Ball by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes

Hi, I’m JotaKa. I’m a rocker by birth and grew listening to rock discs and long plays by the dozen. After a pretty long vacation (A South America tour in a cruise ship), I was thinking of some new ideas, such as reviewing some albums that been sitting on my shelf for a long time and getting some albums of some bands that came to my knowledge on this cruise ship (Met a girl that introduced me to Coheed and Cambria, which is actually a pretty solid act). Unfortunately, here in Brazil we don’t have many Coheed and Cambria stuff… in reality, we don’t have any. I couldn’t find Alkaline Trio on the stores, so why would Coheed and Cambria be available? Whatever… So, one band that was always sitting in my shelf was Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. The first time I heard of them was on Brentalfloss FAQ 5 where he putted them in the intro.

Although not exactly underground, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes is not a mainstream band. So, of course, a little background is required:

The year is 1997. Titanic wins the academy award for best movie and Anaconda starts ruining Brazil to everyone. Daft Punk’s debut album is released, Aqua’s Barbie Girl shows to everyone how catchy a bad song can be if everyone everywhere keeps remembering it and John Denver passes away. Nintendo 64 releases a bunch of good titles (what? I’m an N64 fan) and the RTS fever starts with full force after Age of Empire hits the shelves.

As this is their debut album, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, even though already releasing some singles (successful ones, at that), weren’t exactly the most famous band in the world. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find any back story to the band, so all I can say that the name of the band is also of a child book that I haven’t read, so again, I can’t talk much about it.

However, it’s a band with a gimmick: they are a cover band, as they only release cover songs with no new material. Every album has a theme, in this case its pop hits of sixties, seventies and early eighties. With that being said… it’s a bad gimmick. I mean… I remember one time a friend at college asked me if I wanted to sing in a punk band, and when I agreed, he asked me what song could we “punkacize”. Every single contemporary punk band have done this: Millencolin made a strange rendition of “Every Breath You Take”, Pennywise released “Stand By Me”, Fall Out Boys ruined “Beat It”… even Joey Ramone made “What a Wonderful World”… it’s a stupid gimmick that I mostly hate because, in most cases, you can’t go wrong. You suck everything that made them whatever style they were and jam punk elements, like “Bark At The Moon” by Strung Out that takes all of the metal feeling and replaces it with punk stuff, of course punk people will prefer the new version over the old one. Of course people will say that “it isn’t punk rock, it’s hardcore”, but for me, it’s same shit, different label.

From the outside of the album, well… the cover is just a common debut album cover, with them all on the cover just having a ball… oh… now I get it. Whatever. It has some humor under close inspection here and there, but the white background with the orange lettering just pains me, as it really seems completely amateur… and if that was the intention, they aced it, but that doesn’t attract many people to the album. The elapsed time of the entire album is… 28:48? Seriously? It’s a really damn short album, even for a punk rock album, even when considering Ramones and all. The longest song being 3:15 and the shorter one being 1:24, which is pretty decent, however considering the elapsed time of the entire album, makes it seem really rushed out.

Since this is a cover band, I will compare them with the originals following my personal taste and try to keep a score: see it as a “classics versus punk rock” kind of thing. The album in general didn’t receive any contemplation whatsoever, even though allmusic.com rewarded it with 4 out of 5, which is a pretty decent score. So, let’s get this over with: Have a Ball by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes.

1st track: “Danny’s Song” originally by Kenny Loggins:

Original song and info: Kenny Loggins is soft rock composer and singer from the late seventies. However, he is not the singer most people are used to hear this song with, as Anne Murray started her success with this song. Danny’s Song, originally in the 1971 album Sittin’ In, is a cute song made for his new born nephew, son to his brother Danny. Well… the song hasn’t aged well and it’s not of my particular interest. The lyrics are all romantic and all overall some pretty good lyrics, kind of Cat Stevens good, but melodically speaking, the song is not impressive, how the song drags around a lot, even when the ending approaches and back vocals are added.

Cover: As the lyrics remained unchanged, even considering that they sing some wrong lyrics here and then, the song is pretty much stripped all that made it the soft melody that it was and added with punk rock elements so poorly and bad conceived that I can’t tell if it was a good or a bad idea. The song isn’t good at all: sound like rejected material for a good punk rock band, like something Dead Kennedys would trash on conception.

Original x Cover: Whoa… tough choice. I can’t say neither one of them was a great song, so I’ll stick with the original this time. It has a pretty good vocal and it’s kind of cute and, well… I can’t say anymore than that. Original 1 x 0 Cover

2nd track: “Leaving on a Jet Plane” originally by John Denver:

Original song and info: Okay, if you do not know who is John Denver or never heard Leaving on a Jet Plane, you never heard any aviation company advertisement or any country song at all. John Denver was one of those forgotten legends between the people of this decade, which even though reminded, is pushed aside when talking about some “greater” names of the rock ‘n roll world of yore. He released 30 studio albums in his career and probably inspired every one that came after him. The song is a tearjerker about a guy leaving a girl not knowing if he will ever see her again, melodically the song is used, yes it is, but it still stands as it didn’t grow old in these 54 years of existence. I salute you, John Denver. Unfortunately, he, as a experienced pilot with several hours of air experience, crashed and died tragically. Forever missed, man.

Cover: Well, the cover is a fun cover, but since the punk rock style is quicker and having a more marked beat, the lyrics kind of lose their meaning, as the song was meant to be all romantic and stuff. And this is a complaint I have with Me First and the Gimme Gimmes: it sounds like the singer has a hard time warming up to sing, as if the album was just in one take. So, even though the first songs he doesn’t sing at all, he gets good by the ending of it.

Original x Cover: As you probably imagine, John Denver is the man and I didn’t fall in love with the cover, so, point to the original. Original 2 x 0 Cover

3rd track: “Me And Julio Down by the Schoolyard” originally by Paul Simon:

Original song and info: Paul Simon is a great composer, singer and guitarist which was more famous on the duo Simon and Garfunkel, with his friend Art Garfunkel, but this song was one of his solo works. Even though I really like Paul Simon (as I said on my review of Graceland, excellent album), this song was always a bad song in my opinion. The lyrics try to be meaningful and filled with metaphors but I believe fails to do so. In fact, his debut solo album, in which this song is part of, isn’t that great either.

Cover: As the vocals finally settle down to a level that is bearable, the calm tone of this song reminds me of Social Distortion. The lyrics remain the same, of course it does, but it replaces the acoustic guitar with a electric guitar and adds a drum to the whole equation, even though the bass is pretty much exactly the same as is the pace of the song.

Original x Cover: The songs are pretty much the same, really, in all the categories that Me First and the Gimme Gimmes could’ve changed them. However, is the choice of more modern instruments and a better vocal in general that made me go with Me First this time around. I don’t know; maybe I’m too much on the new era to fully understand the superiority of the acoustic guitar but I believe that this one goes to the Gimme Gimmes. Original 2 x 1 Cover

4th track: “One Tin Soldier” originally by Original Caste:

Original song and info: I never heard of Original Caste: upon research, I got that they were a highly regarded Canadian group with only 5 albums. Upon hearing the original song, they are awesome. They sound like The Carpenters if they ever jammed with Peter, Paul and Mary. The song is an anti-war song and the melody is just masterfully well made: since I don’t know the rest of their work, I can’t say how the rest of their songs are, but if they are close to this song, they deserve a checking. The song has some god awesome trumpet sections and other brasses, ending with a pretty United States patriotic drums and flute. A pretty unique song, even more knowing that it comes from Canada. Well played, Original Caste, I will be checking you later.

Cover: Since the whole theme only gets intensified with the mix of punk, the song is pretty strong even though they don’t have all the trumpets and the ending. The overall song is pretty good as the original material was damn solid as well. The singing is getting more and more enthusiastic and the punk is getting less and less generic as the tracks go by.

Original x Cover: Another tough one… I think this will be all toughs from now on… they both presented pretty strong songs (and believe me, they are both going to my Ipod) and the choice is pretty much decided on taste alone. My taste? I will favor to the Original Caste by a straw, mostly because of the trumpets, the female vocals and the ending. That doesn’t mean that the punk version was bad, it’s just that the Original Caste got me by the ankles: sorry. Original 3 x 1 Cover

5th track: “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel:

Original song and info: Just too get this out of the way so I can talk about the song itself, Billy Joel is a singer, a songwriter and composer of most of the all time classics in rock ‘n roll and pop history. With only 13 studio albums (yeah, I wish he would release some more), he has one of the few albums that I wish I had but I don’t, 52nd street, which kicks ass. Okay, the song: you know those songs that everyone in the world has already hummed in the way to do something? This one is that song. I swear: if you don’t know which song is this, google it and you’ll find that you know this song even if you were born last month. I’m dead serious. The lyrics are poor, but who needs lyrics in a song as catchy as this one? It will never leave you.

Cover: The same formula as before, with the song being just jammed in with a lot of punk elements, and believe me when I say that it works: they manage to make it work somehow. The song is enjoyable through all of it, since it compresses the song to less than half of the original duration, as it is a speed up version of it retaining the catchy feel of it. It’s a pretty great song, as the original.

Original x Cover: However, the expert usage of back vocal that the original has that the cover only manage to try it near the ending is was makes me favor the original one again. The cover is pretty damn entertaining and should not be forgotten, and since it wasn’t Me First intention to be better, and since I’m following my own taste, I give this one to the original. Original 4 x 1 Cover

6th track: “I am a Rock” originally by Simon and Garfunkel:

Original song and info: As stated before, Simon and Garfunkel is a duo comprised of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. And believe me; I enjoy the hell out of those two guys: they made a bunch of songs I wouldn’t forget even with a hammer to my forehead. But this song is so freaking forgettable. I know the song is originally from a solo album, but let’s get the Sound of Silence, shall we? It’s a great album, not their best, but a great album none the less, and it has 5 completely memorable songs, and Me First picks this one? To be sincere, it’s one of the worst songs Paul Simon composed in my opinion.

Cover: The cover is pretty well put together, with some interesting tempo changes here and there and with the fast tempo and electric guitar, the song takes flight in a completely different meaning than the original and it’s a great song, with some pretty well-made instrumentals.

Original x Cover: The cover isn’t great, but it’s still better than the original. Really, I am a Rock isn’t that great of a song so that it couldn’t be “coverized”. Original 4 x 2 Cover

7th track: “Sweet Caroline” originally by Neil Diamond:

Original song and info: Neil Diamond aka The Jewish Elvis (I couldn’t make this one out even if I tried) is a singer and songwriter that, even though having an extensive career with lots of albums, never really clicked my style. Most of his songs sound really repetitive: maybe it’s just me. And Sweet Caroline is one of those songs that he did that just didn’t click. As an Elvis cover, cool, better, but as a Neil Diamond song, I don’t think it can be considered a classic.

Cover: The cover is fucking annoying. With the marked guitar and drums with a solo guitar just screwing around, this song could’ve been way better than the original, but even as a standalone, not considering the original at any angle, it sucks hard. It was a failed experiment and should’ve been aborted in the making.

Original x Cover: Tough choice on which one is the worst. Sincerely? I don’t know if I’m allowed to do this by the god of reviewers (…Santa Christ?), but this one goes to Elvis. Strange, isn’t it? Original 4 x 2 Cover … (x1 Elvis)

8th track: “Seasons in the Sun” originally by Jacques Brel:

Original song and info: No, seriously, Jacques Brel. I just discovered that. I wrote my usual paragraph about Terry Jacks, and when I got curious about what album was it, this showed up. Jacques Brel. From “Ne Me Quitte Pas” fame. Okay, as I’m not aware of the story behind this guy, I can only talk about the song: it is awesome, in all his Belgian glory. I saw a review of it that said it has some irony about his wife infidelity, but overall, even though I can’t understand two words out of French, the song talks about this guy who is dying and saying his last farewells to his friend, to his wife and, strangely enough, his wife lover. It is a good song, it really is.

Cover: This song is awesome. Really: it is. The song is overall fun, with some tempo changes and breakdowns through the chorus, and I can understand what the hell they are saying, even though for what I could gather, all of the covers in English, beside The Kingston Trio, omitted the whole “affair” part of it because it sounds more romantic without it.

Original x Cover: When I say that the cover took all of what was good in the original and just made it better, I’m not joking: it could be only better if they sang in French (if I could understand French, that is). Original 4 x 3 Cover

9th track: “Fire and Rain” originally by James Taylor:

Original song and info: James Taylor is a songwriter and singer who is most famous for this song: fire and rain. He has 16 studio albums and has an extensive career since the late sixties, but he was never a pick for me. It’s not that it’s bad, it isn’t: it’s just not my style. And this song is incredibly boring. It is. It’s just the generic country soft Jesus music; it’s just part of a mechanic experiment: just filling the whole country formula. I’m not going to enter in details to get crucified later, it’s just not my type of song.

Cover: They manage to get this song and transform into a Green Day tune. It really sounds as Green Day, beside from the vocal, from the Nimrod times, not the new direction. The guitar works it exquisitely throughout the whole song. Kudos, Me First, even making the song that you knew was boring incredibly shorter.

Original x Cover: Undoubtedly, since I enjoy Green Day mostly, the Gimme Gimmes made it shine with this one, presenting a great song with crappy material. Original 4 x 4 Cover

10th track: “Nobody Does It Better” originally by Carly Simon:

Original song and info: Carly Simon is a singer and songwriter from the early sixties that was married to James Taylor, but this one has lots more of talent. Well, not exactly… I’m not a huge fan of Carly Simon, in fact, I dislike most of her songs. However, there is one song that I would easily jam in a top 100 songs of all time, and that song is Nobody Does It Better. As most people, I got to know him with 007’s The Spy Who Loved Me, even though it was with Roger Moore. The song rocks with excellent lyrics and some great choices in instrumentation and excellent vocals, starting with a godly piano and finishing with a killer sax. Overall, this song is just awesome.

Cover: As a standalone, this song rocks: it astonishes me how a band can turn on this amount of quality doing a cover of a song as great as Nobody Does It Better. The vocals are inspired; the tempo change from the intro to the song is energizing and really creative, even taking off the piano and the sax.

Original x Cover: I don’t know. I really don’t know. I wish I could pin this on Elvis again. And even though I have pretty strong memories of Carly Simon’s version, I have to say that I, in my modest and humble opinion, prefer the Gimme Gimmes versions. That was a tough choice. It’s just… it was decided by my opinion alone. They are both awesome, and if you could, you should check them both. Original 4 x 5 Cover

11th track: “Mandy” originally by Barry Manilow:

Original song and info: If you don’t know who Barry Manilow is, go get some culture. He wrote “Copacabana”. He is guy that made many of the love songs that made girls in the eighties slow dance in parties. With almost 40 studio albums, this guy is one of those that are unmistakably a talented guy, as he is with the song in question. Mandy is a pretty solid track, and even though the song isn’t exactly his, the song “Mandy” is, since he changed the name of the song from “Brandy” and made some significant changes from the original melody. This song is great, with some pretty simple lyrics and a nice to dance close to the loved one (even though there were a bunch of parties that played “alone again naturally” as a love song… creepy…)

Cover: Again, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes nailed it perfectly: they followed the previous song formula with the slow intro and then evolving to the punk version of it. It’s a great track as the original, but it has one of the best Punk rock instrumentals that could be arranged without ruined everything about this song.

Original x Cover: Another tough choice. Man… they are both so amazingly well done and with so great spirit to it all… well… again, only because of personal taste and because I prefer some drums, guitars and a faster pace, I will favor the Me First. Original 4 x 6 Cover

12th track: “Rocket Man” originally by Elton John:

Original song and info: For me, there are few people that are better than Elton John in the whole music business. If Michael Jackson was the king of pop, Elton John is the queen… I hope that won’t sound as silly as I’m thinking it will. With 30 studio albums and one of the best albums in existence, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, this guy has rocked through the generations proving that you can be pop, rock ‘n roll and disco at the same time in the same songs. In this song, which treats of the normality that has become being a man that flies on rockets and how he is treated as just a common person in the days the song was released, the melody has a great piano playing through it all with a rocking guitar effect kind of Pink Floyd in some stances, so it is one of my favorite rock songs that talk about space (the other one? ’39). This song rocks and should be listened by everyone.

Cover: The song is good as well, with some pretty decent choices, however, the intro is poorly executed. As a final track to an album, it is not compelling and I think they should’ve done as they did with “Me and Julio”, keeping the pacing and exchanging the instruments. The song is good, but it could be better.

Original x Cover: I love the cover and I knew that it wouldn’t be easy to topple it, so the outcome was easy, even though since Nobody Does It Better Me First and the Gimme Gimmes is just getting better and better. Original 5 x 6 Cover

So how does it all hold up? Well, I didn’t see this outcome at all. I thought it would be close before doing it, in the start I was thinking it would be unfair against the Gimme Gimmes and they completely broke my expectations: congratulations. The album is great and it works as a novelty album and a punk rock album. If you are a classic song listening type of guy, you should go after this one. If you are a fan of the whole pop punk scenario, you should listen to this. Just keep your mind open and it should be a heck of a ride.

This is JotaKa, signing off.

Follow me on twitter @jotakapf

…Uptown Girl… You know I can’t afford to buy her pearls…

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