A few months ago, I received a copy of Debbie Gibson's Out of the Blue on vinyl as a gift—and it wasn't a joke. OK, it was kind of a joke, but Gibson was one of my absolute faves growing up, and I ended up loving the album—which I first listened to on a teal-and-hot-pink cassette player—all over again. Then, shortly after this rekindling of my relationship with late-'80s pop, WW received a copy of Sexton Blake's latest effort, a cover album simply titled Plays the Hits!
The longtime project of local singer-songwriter Josh Hodges, Sexton Blake is known for gentle pop and noisy indie rock alike. But Plays the Hits! takes the keyboard, guitar and drum skills of the whispery-voiced Hodges to a different level—a Paula Abdul and Milli Vanilli level, to be exact. Just as I was rocking out (in the privacy of my own home, of course) to such Gibson hits as "Shake Your Love" and "Foolish Beat," Hodges was revisiting a similar era (and then some), recording electro-pop covers of Abdul's "Rush, Rush," Rod Stewart's "Young Turks" and Kim Carnes' "Bette Davis Eyes," among others. "That's what was popular when I was a kid," explains the softspoken 28-year-old.
When asked whether his song choices were meant to be funny, Hodges cites Milli Vanilli's "Girl You Know It's True" as one he chose just for fun. But mostly, he says, he just wanted to take songs that were "crappy or poorly performed" in the first place and try to make them "palatable." The whole thing, however, was Expunged Records founder Anthony Davis' idea: "I wasn't sure it was gonna work," admits Hodges. But—from an acoustic-guitar-based rendition of LL Cool J's "I Need Love" to a heartfelt version of Springsteen's "Hungry Heart," which Hodges says made him aware of the song's "true and depressing" nature—Plays the Hits! does work. Perhaps most notably, it gives new depth to songs most of us have heard a million times.
Though Hodges says some lyrics—like the football metaphor in Air Supply's "Making Love Out of Nothing at All"—were "hard to spit out," he sounds pleased with the album's end result. Much like I rediscovered Debbie Gibson and pleasantly found Out of the Blue to be some of the best teen pop out there, Hodges says studying the structures of the songs he covered was an interesting endeavor. "I love pop music," he says plainly, adding that he took comfort in the fact that his goal with Plays the Hits! seemed attainable. Citing his cover of Elliott Smith's "Rose Parade" (which appeared on an '06 tribute comp), Hodges says covering really good songs is "scary" because you know "it's going to be worse than the original." I can only hope my singalongs with Gibson come close.
Sexton Blake celebrates the release of Plays the Hits! Saturday, July 7, with the Online Romance and Nire at the Doug Fir. 9 pm. $8. 21+. Listen to "Hungry Heart" on LocalCut.com.