Every year or so, I find myself bringing on Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. For those not in the know, they’re a pop-punk supergroup made up of members of Foo Fighters, Lagwagon, NOFX and Swingin’ Utters. They’re a sort of living karaoke machine, performing punk covers of everything from Broadway standards to R&B hits. There are two types of punk rock fans in the world: those who love the Gimmes and those who can’t stand them. Count me among the former.
First and foremost, the band is made up of five guys who are really good at what they do. Spike Slawson, who fronts Swingin’ Utters and other bands when he’s not crooning for the Gimmes, has a soulful approach to singing punk. Rather than coming straight from the face and nose, it’s all in the chest and throat. He’s able to plow through Stevie Wonder and Seal so smoothly that one can’t help but wonder what he could do if he dedicated himself to R&B full-time.
The rest of the band (Chris Shiflett of Foo Fighters, Joey Cape and Dave Raun from Lagwagon and the singular Fat Mike from NOFX) are clearly capable players on at least two levels. First, adapting swirling pop tracks like “End of the Road” for a five-piece band is a task I doubt few would be up to. It’s hard to boil tracks like that down to their essential elements without losing something in the translation. Are a Drag, an album of Broadway musical covers, isn’t my favorite thing they’ve done, but it’s an excellent representation of their talent for making the complex simple without losing the essence.
As Lou Giordano observed when talking about Boston’s grindcore progenitors Siege, it takes a set of good musicians to play that fast and remain tight. The Gimmes never lose a step. One could easily make the argument that there’s studio magic at work here, but their one live album, Ruin Jonny’s Bar Mitzvah, is truly a live album. It’s recorded from start to finish at an actual bar mitzvah, including the intermission. While the band have some moments of Replacements-esque giving up on stuff they’re just not ready for (“Stairway to Heaven” was apparently beyond their grasp), for the most part they keep it together, all while engaging in stage banter that would make Sinatra proud.
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There’s an edge of humor to the whole thing, for sure, but you never get the sense the guys are making fun of the songs they’re singing. If anything there seems to be a really reverent sense about it; in their own way, they want to do these songs justice. The jokes come primarily in the form of introductions and interpolations. Bad Religion’s “Generator” gets stuck in the middle of “My Favorite Things.” Seal’s “Crazy” begins with the main riff of Black Flag’s “Six Pack.” And there’s a strange unwillingness to end any song cleanly. Most tracks drag on with Slawson repeatedly yelling “yeah!” over and over again, like the recurring Family Guy joke where Peter bangs his knee and can't stop saying “ow.”
They show a great deal of range in terms of what they choose to cover. Their debut, Have a Ball, is dedicated to primarily hits of the 1960s and ’70s, as is Blow in the Wind. Are a Drag is a tribute to Broadway, while Take a Break covers R&B hits from the ’70s through the early ’90s. Love Their Country unsurprisingly takes on country music, everything from Garth Brooks to Hank Williams. Are We Not Men? We Are Diva! features only songs originally sung by female singers such as Cher and Lady Gaga (and one sung by Boy George).
Ultimately, everything they do does sound a bit samey, which makes it hard to see how they could be anyone’s favorite band. But damn if you don’t find yourself listening to them over and over again — sometimes the same track for hours or even a few days at a time. It’s that damn catchy, like popcorn in musical form. Like popcorn, it’s fun and ultimately satisfying in a way that never fails to keep you coming back for more.