Album Review: Various Artists — Redrawn: A Tribute to The Pencils

Have you ever heard of The Pencils? Me neither. But as it happens, this band from Hertfordshire, England made some exuberant powerpop in the very early 1980s. For their trouble the band met with little success. But when they’re remembered at all, they’re remembered fondly.

The folks at Kool Kat Musik are among the Pencils cognoscenti. After a German label belatedly released a Pencils album in 1984, things were quiet for some time. But in 2012 Kool Kat released an anthology of Pencils recordings. That same year the label released another set, Early Sketches.

Happily, those releases came to the attention of some of powerpop’s artists of the 21st century. So now (and again from Kool Kat) we have Redrawn: A Tribute to The Pencils. Perhaps because the group had/has a limited catalog, the 2CD set takes a highly unusual approach to the material. The first disc features 11 Pencils songs, covered by the same number of current-day acts. The second compact disc features those same 11 songs, in the same order, covered by eleven other artists.

The group’s streamlined musical approach highlights pop songwriting values, skilled crafting of melodic hooks, and tight, taut arrangement. All of those values are celebrated by the artists who cover Pencils material on this collection. The CD doesn’t include detailed session notes and the like, but it’s perhaps worth noting that the set opens with a reading of “I Won’t Lie” by The Jetz, which is the band that Pencils members were in previously.

Among the group’s most well-known (a relative term, that) is “If You Really Wanna Hurt Somebody,” a minor pop classic in the mold of The Romantics. Automat cover it nicely on Disc One, but Nick Frater’s version on the second disc is the clear winner here.

And if there’s any issue with this collection, it’s just that: tribute/cover albums by their nature invite comparison, and oftentimes the remakes don’t measure up to the originals. Having two versions of each song only increases the likelihood that listeners will measure one against another.

Happily, since most won’t know the original versions, the songs on Redrawn can be weighed on their own merits. The inevitability of the two discs competing is simply a baked-in characteristic of the set. Fortunately, the material is top-notch, the performances are spirited, and the quality is consistent. The songwriting is undeniably derivative: one can almost pick out the song or songs that inspired each of the Pencils originals — but the group were clearly excellent students of the pop form. And derivative doesn’t mean bad.

Considered outside of context – ignoring that these are covers of songs you’re unlikely to know, by artists you might (but probably won’t) know – Redrawn: A Tribute to The Pencils plays like a very good powerpop radio station without commercials. Recommended.