Various Artists

Reproductions: Songs of the Human League (March)

Chances are the buyer of a tribute album purchases it because he likes the band being honored. The bands on such an album probably feel the same, but working on it might leave them familiar with the ambiguity of the word "tribute," which means both "acknowledgement of gratitude" and "payment under duress." Any cover will be held up to the standard of its original, and if a song is worth paying tribute to, it will be hard to do it justice. In this way the remaker's admiration can sometimes be his downfall: It's hard to live up to that which you revere.

Phil Oakey, leader of '80s synth-pop band the Human League, was best known for his ability to evoke emotion via his painstakingly flat, often processed vocals. Some of the bands on Reproductions attempt in earnest to replicate Oakey's detachment; when they succeed, however, they seldom capture the depth behind Oakey's deadpan tone. A few groups sidestep this problem by having women sing lead. On "Don't You Want Me," the Future Bible Heroes' vocalists go one step further, switching the genders of the original song's singers and building suspense by making the woman the aggressor and the man the cocktail waitress.

Other bands try improving on the Human League through experimentation, avoiding the problem of faithfulness altogether. The 6ths, one of three groups on the album featuring Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields, rework "Human" by presenting Oakey's angst-ridden lyrics with Lloyd Cole's markedly nonmechanical voice. British trio Baxendale also succeeds with an inventive cover of the hit "(Keep Feeling) Fascination." Beginning with a woman singing over acoustic guitar and cello, the new version moves into more familiar synth-beat territory, only to digress into phone messages from ardent fans and rapped musings as to what it must have been like to be "Phil Oakey, pop star" in the mid-'80s.


Sample of The 6ths with Lloyd Cole's "Human," from the CD Reproductions (Songs of the Human League). Click the "play" icon in the control console below.

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While the songs on Reproductions fare well against the originals, the album still falls prey to the dangers of homage. In the end it is most likely to send listeners scurrying back to the real Human League albums. Maybe that's the biggest tribute of all.

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