ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Punk Goes Pop, Vol. 7’ by Various Artists

So we’re back here again, at the latest iteration of Fearless Records’ Punk Goes… series, once again taking residence in its most successful form of getting the hottest, most relevant names in the Warped Tour scene to cover the hottest, most relevant pop songs currently doing the rounds. The fact that this one branch of the series alone is now seven albums deep speaks volumes as to how successful it is, even if in the past it’s slew of renditions have been notoriously hit-or-miss. So does that change for Vol. 7? Well, in lieu of a traditional review – given how it’s nigh in impossible to give general thoughts surrounding a compilation of pop-punk, post-hardcore, metalcore and everything in between – we’ve broken it down track by track to see which ones work, which don’t, and how that all adds in the end, ultimately seeing how Vol. 7 stands up against the series’ past entries. So let’s get to it…

State Champs – Stitches (originally by Shawn Mendes)
To kick off the album like this is a pretty safe bet. After all, it’s not difficult to picture how Stitches can be transposed into a pop-punk song, and State Champs do a pretty good job of it all the same. It’s more or less a note-for-note replica, only with a bit more pace naturally thrown in and a few more chunkier guitar lines, and as such, there’s very little to say about it. Even with Derek DiScanio pushing his voice to eke out a bit more anger and abrasion, it’s still a safe choice, especially in the pop-leaning direction that State Champs have been taking. It’s not bad per se, but there’s not much of interest offered here, and it feels quite nondescript, especially with the limits the some of the renditions here go to.

Dance Gavin Dance – That’s What I Like (originally by Bruno Mars)
Speaking of limits, there’s Dance Gavin Dance’s That’s What I Like, and at least it twists the track in some weird new ways, ditching any sign of the smooth R&B of the original and cramming in the spidery, highly obtuse guitar work this band has become synonymous with. It’s a shame that’s where any praise ends though, as That’s What I Like is a complete mess otherwise, throwing together dissonant chunks of sound that have no chance of connecting and praying that something good comes from it. Jon Mess’ screams sound impossibly awkward over an instrumental like this, while Tilian Pearson sounds uncomfortably restrained in his cleans, almost dropping into a whisper at the back end of each chorus. It really is all over the place and not in a good way; one that could’ve easily been left off with little consequence.

New Years Day – Gangsta (originally by Kehlani)
It’s fitting that this song is being covered by this band, an incredibly minor hit covered by an act that really don’t have much stock anymore. With that in mind, New Years Day’s take on Kehlani’s Suicide Squad soundtrack contribution could easily be an original, but that isn’t saying much, especially given that the band can be underwhelming at the best of times to say the least. Yet again, it’s made up of the same monochromatic nu-metal dregs that comprise most of New Years Day’s material, with Ash Costello’s drawn-out cooing once again proving how badly this band want to be In This Moment. They give the track their own personality, that much can be said at least, but when that doesn’t have much to it begin with, and the track they’re putting their spin on is forgettable on its own, that’s hardly a beacon of quality right there. It’s not the worst track here, but it’s the most inessential by a substantial distance.

The Amity Affliction – Can’t Feel My Face (originally by The Weeknd)
If you do want the worst track, look no further than The Amity Affliction taking their butcher’s knife to The Weeknd’s Can’t Feel My Face. And let’s be blunt – this is pretty much dead on arrival on all accounts. For a start, the tight bass groove of the original may be here, but it’s totally drowned out under layer upon layer of washed-out production, unnecessary deluges of weighty synths and a guitar tone that’s virtually nonexistent, only properly emerging in the last five seconds as a middle finger to the audience for wanting a cover to have basic competence or a sense of instrumental motion. Even in the vocals, Joel Birch’s screams – in other words, the most tolerable element of The Amity Affliction on the whole – are relegated to garnish for Ahren Stringer’s deadened, listless vocals. Sure, the original might’ve sounded disconnected, but at least that was intentional, not just the product of artistic ineptitude. Basically, if you’ve heard any song from The Amity Affliction before, you’ll know exactly what this sounds like, and you should also know to stay well away.

Andy Black & Juliet Simms – When We Were Young (originally by Adele)
This is probably the biggest track on the album, not only because it sees the Black Veil Brides frontman, along with his wife Juliet Simms, take on a track from unquestionably one of the biggest artists of the modern era, but it’s also a drastic stylistic departure from anything else the album has to offer. And honestly, it’s probably the best track here, most because it keeps the spirit and tone of the original, but the pair still make it their own. The piano and touches of strings are made a bit darker, the guitars take up more of the mix for that airy power ballad swell, and for a track about reconnecting with an ex-lover, the interplay within the duet is an inspired choice. What’s more, both vocalists take the track entirely in their stride with Andy faring the best after a slightly shaky start from Juliet on her verse, but there’s little to fault overall. It’s quite simply a fantastic reimagining of an already great song, easily amongst the cream of the crop of this particular lineup.

Grayscale – Love Yourself (originally by Justin Bieber)
With Grayscale’s take on Love Yourself, it’s hard not to compare it to State Champs’ Stitches to see why this works slightly better. For one, even though it falls in a very similar pop-punk / alt-rock intersection, the lone acoustic guitar of the original doesn’t translate as smoothly, so to see that the band have managed to mould it into a more downbeat, emo-leaning pop-punk track is a nice touch. The touch of gruffness in Collin Walsh’s vocals gels well with it too, and for a decidedly low-key track, there’s a lot that really sticks here. Again, there isn’t a great deal to latch onto in terms of standout features, and the synths that poke through in the bridge don’t add much and can actually be kind of annoying, but to see Grayscale take such a well-known song and make it distinctly their own is some impressive work.

Capsize – Fake Love (originally by Drake)
Something like Capsize covering Drake is the bread and butter of what the Punk Goes Pop series is built on, and as is to be expected, it can go wrong in spectacular fashion. This one isn’t that bad, but it’s certainly mediocre at the very best, mostly because Capsize’s brand of melodic hardcore just doesn’t couple in any capacity with Drake’s type of hip-hop. Instrumentally it’s built around a pretty standard low-slung, crunching guitar setup that’s fine enough, but as has always been the case with Capsize, Daniel Ward’s raspier vocals are very much an acquired taste, especially on the chorus here with a nasal, sloppy quality that makes it sound as though this isn’t being taken all that seriously. The bigger issue is that the whole thing just feels awkward, pretty much the bottom line for when a post-hardcore band tries to cover a hip-hop track for one of these albums, and while this is by no means the worst (let’s just remember that A Skylit Drive covering Love The Way You Lie is a thing), it’s not something to get excited about.

Boston Manor – Heathens (originally by Twenty One Pilots)
Boston Manor’s Heathens shares quite a bit with New Years Days’ Gangsta – both originated on the Suicide Squad soundtrack; both still retain something of a similar vibe to their originals; and unfortunately, both don’t have the legs to really go far. At least Boston Manor have actually captured something of a midpoint between themselves and Twenty One Pilots here rather than identically transposing note for note, factoring in the synth croaks of the original as well as some whirring, melodic guitars for a bit more body and atmosphere. But just like with Capsize, the hip-hop flows don’t suit Henry Cox’s vocal style, especially when he’s in his more vulnerable lower range that he spends the majority of the track in, only properly picking up at the very end. Couple this with the darker, grittier guitars that usually work for Boston Manor, and Heathens feels strangely static, just sitting motionless in the background with nothing that really grabs the attention. As much as overexposure may have murdered the original, this doesn’t look to be the alternative of choice.

Eat Your Heart Out – Shape Of You (originally by Ed Sheeran)
So Fearless have chosen this as an opportunity to roll out one of their newest signings, and this is what they give them to do? A pop-punk Ed Sheeran cover that’s decent if nothing more? It feels as though Eat Your Heart Out have more to offer than this; the fact that Caitlin Henry keeps traces of her Australian accent really helps on the personality front, and even from this cover, they clearly know their way around a decent melody, especially in some of the more complex guitar lines. But again, this feels on par with State Champs’ cover, in that it’s an easy option carried out predictably well. Throwing in a few extra steps of pace in the final chorus just about keeps the momentum going until the end, but when the first real exposure and marketing for Eat Your Heart Out comes on a covers compilation, one can’t help but think they’re being sold slightly short.

The Plot In You – Let It Go (originally by James Bay)
This is an interesting one, as it goes in a direction that’s totally unexpected. Where The Plot In You could’ve easily gone down their regular route of bludgeoning metalcore, their cover of Let It Go actually keeps in tone with the original, stripped down to a gentle guitar with steady drums and quiet strings to go in a rootsier indie rock direction. On its own it’s pretty gorgeous as a piece of music, but what pushes it into utterly stunning territory is Landon Tewers’ vocal performance, capturing the raw, dull ache of pure heartbreak that James Bay’s indie-folk warble never could. And with every tangible crack and the eruption into sheer pain in the final chorus, it’s a stellar rendition that could’ve easily been different, but couldn’t possibly have been this good.

Ice Nine Kills – I Don’t Wanna Live Forever (originally by Zayn & Taylor Swift)
Speaking of surprises, here’s perennial metalcore B-listers Ice Nine Kills covering a song by Zayn and Taylor Swift written for the 50 Shades Darker soundtrack. There’s more than enough to sneer at right there, but again, this is another win coming straight out of the blue. This time, it’s because Ice Nine Kills go the way that Andy Black and Juliet Simms did with theirs; all the poise of the original is still here, but swaps out its more skeletal, rigid affectations for a far more direct performance as far as vocals and guitars go, and a massive, languid string section that, if it wasn’t here, would make this track considerably weaker. Even with slightly redundant screams and breakdowns that feel as though they’re only here to confirm that, yes, this is still a metalcore track, there’s power and real heart here that Ice Nine Kills pull off shockingly well.

Seaway – Closer (originally by The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey)
Another pop-punk cover here, except maybe not, as Seaway’s take on The Chainsmokers’ megahit does away with anything close to that genre in favour of restrained, pensive guitar lines and a vocal performance pulled straight from a modern alt-rock ballad. If this is to be classed as one of the “pop-punk” tracks on the album, it’s easily the best, purely for having a wonderful command of subtlety. The original’s choppy electronic drops are replaced with the sort of winding, liquid guitar line to be played over the credits of any number of teen movies, and the vocals from Ryan Locke and Patrick Carleton never feel overstated or too much. Again, it’s a very equable track, but plays that its advantage. If any criticism has to be made, it would be that the rattling beats that occasionally show up and sound as though they’re on loan from The Chainsmokers themselves could’ve been left out, but beyond that, Seaway give their rendition a lot of grace and quiet emotional resonance, and they can pull it off well to boot.

Too Close To Touch – In The Name Of Love (originally by Martin Garrix & Bebe Rexha)
Clearly this was meant to be the big climactic closer, where Too Close To Touch give their bombastic take on Martin Garrix and Bebe Rexha’s In The Name Of Love, the sort of sleeper hit that mightn’t have had huge crossover success, but still roped in a considerable number who bought into it. Shame this probably won’t do the same, and that’s almost all down to the instrumental, drowning out the prominent melody present in the original in favour of crashing, heavy guitars that reduce it to a tinny fragment. Even if Keaton Pierce’s vocals have the clarity and range you would expect from this sort of poppy post-hardcore act, the fact that the instrumental plays such a major part in the song renders their attempt to save the song pretty futile. Especially when placed right next to Seaway pulling off a similar thing as well as they do, Too Close To Touch are left at the wayside.

Overall: As unpredictable as the Punk Goes Pop compilations can be, with erratic fluctuations in quality throughout, Vol. 7 deserves a lot of credit, both for the increase in quality control and the fact that there are some unique ideas here that pay off. Of course, the duds are still here, but not as in earnest as they have been in previous cases, and apart from a couple of notable exceptions, even they’re not that bad, mainly bland or predictable above anything else. Yet at its best, there are covers here that see a handful of performers deliver some of their most competent, accessible material to date. As with all of these compilations, it’s worth cherry-picking individual tracks rather than enduring the whole thing to get to the best moments, but at least this time, there’s more quality here than in previous incarnations. For perhaps the first time, this is a Punk Goes Pop compilation that’s definitely worth a look; there’s actually plenty that’s enjoyable to be found.

Words by Luke Nuttall 

‘Punk Goes Pop, Vol. 7’ is released on 14th July on Fearless Records.

Leave a Reply