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Me First & the Gimme Gimmes

Blow in the Wind

(Fat Wreck Chords)

Chestnut Station

In Your Living Room

(Drag City)

Relegated to weddings, bar mitzvahs, and frat bars, rock 'n' roll repertory bands have never earned the respect enjoyed by their counterparts in jazz or blues or even country. At best, they've been regarded as novelty entertainment; at worst, they've been dismissed as talentless poseurs attempting to make a living off the legacy of hardworking songwriters.

But pop culture has a way of conferring respectability on all sorts of ridiculousness over time. For instance, in recent years the popularity of the tribute band--a close relative of the cover band but not quite the same thing--has exploded. In addition to the usual Elvis impersonators, Beatlemaniacs, and Jerry Garcia wannabes, there are bands directing the sincerest form of flattery at everyone from Blondie to Ratt to the Sisters of Mercy. A group called Badness pays homage to Bad Manners and Madness, while the Beautiful Southmartins are devoted to the Beautiful South and Fatboy Slim's old band the Housemartins. There are at least 30 bands dedicated to reliving the glory of Thin Lizzy alone. For a while there was a band from LA called Nudist Priest, which played Judas Priest songs naked, and in 1996 Tim "Ripper" Owens, the singer for a string of Judas Priest cover bands in Akron, Ohio, actually joined the real Judas Priest; a movie based on his experience, starring Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston, is slated to come out this year.

Cover bands, in theory if not in practice, have gained some cred lately as well. Your average bar band may still be suffering in obscurity, but in San Francisco and Chicago at least two crews of rockers who've earned respect the hard way have delved into the pleasures of interpretation on their latest records.

Me First & the Gimme Gimmes are something of a west-coast punk supergroup: Fat Mike from NOFX, Joey Cape and Dave Raun from Lagwagon, Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shifflet, and golden-throated crooner Spike Slawson, who normally plays bass for the Swingin' Utters. For three albums now, they've specialized in reprocessing the cheese every self-respecting punk is supposed to despise. On their 70s-themed debut, Have a Ball, they took on Barry Manilow, Paul Simon, and James Taylor; on their second record, Are a Drag, they tackled Broadway, delivering blistering punk versions of "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" and "Phantom of the Opera."

On their latest, Blow in the Wind, they've chosen to soup up the 60s, from the pre-British Invasion pop that inspired the Ramones through the inevitable Beatles to the mellow folk-rock the decade petered out on. Del Shannon's "Runaway" and the Angels hit "My Boyfriend's Back" come across as energetic punk classics, while a silly but raging take on the Turtles' "Elenor" interpolates large chunks of the Clash's "London Calling" into the verses. Even the corniest choices--the Goffin-King chestnut "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," Cat Stevens's "Wild World," John Phillips's "San Francisco"--are transformed into slam-danceable pop-punk ditties, complete with squealing solos, furious power chords, fancy drum fills, and big-time production.

The Gimme Gimmes' gags are all right there on the surface: sap sped up, songs by girls sung straight by boys, and so forth. The laughs provided by the Chicago supergroup Chestnut Station--whose current lineup includes Rick Rizzo of Eleventh Dream Day, Paul Caporino of M.O.T.O., Brendan Murphy of the Wesley Willis Fiasco, and Mark Greenberg of the Coctails--are slightly more subtle. The band's only previous release is an EP of original songs from 1998, but on their high-spirited first full-length, In Your Living Room, they concentrate on championing obscure nuggets of bubblegum and blue-eyed soul.

Though all compositions are credited on the record, front man Rian Murphy is not above putting over the tunes as his own: "Every time we did a show, we would try and add a couple of things like that and it was always a lot of fun," says Murphy, who in the past has drummed for Dolomite, Royal Trux, and Palace. "It's a pretty good source for coming up with entertaining new material to just ransack the past. We're not a full-time group, so it's hard to sit around and develop material. I would just say 'memorize this song and show up and let's play it.' It just seemed that if we were going to do a record like this, I couldn't come up with more fun kinds of compositions than the ones that already existed out there and were unappreciated."

With the voice of a thousand white 60s singer-songwriters, Murphy attacks novelty numbers like the Fun and Games' "Elephant Candy" and the Kinks' "Sitting on My Sofa" with an audible smirk, and though the house party in the background is real--the album was recorded live at the Hideout last May--the banter sometimes sounds rehearsed. ("Is there another guy with ruffles here?" Murphy asks at one point. "Because if so, I do want a piece of him.") But the band does a truly lovely version of Hoyt Axton's "Snowblind Friend," and later, accompanied by a couple horns, rips the roof off with a rendition of Don Covay's "Fat Man."

It's only in the past 30 years or so that songwriters have been elevated to their current exalted status. Frank Sinatra, perhaps the pop star for the ages, was no writer--his art was the transformation of someone else's composition into his own masterpiece. Neither Murphy nor Slawson is the next Sinatra, to be sure, and thanks to their kitschy approaches--the Gimme Gimmes pose as Shriners with martini supplies on the cover of Blow in the Wind, while the Chestnut Station disc is emblazoned with a sticker promising "America's #1 Party Album from America's #2 Party Band!"--they're not likely to be taken for contenders. But once you get past the shtick, both records affirm that the molding of preexisting material can be an art form in its own right.

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