Don’t be fooled by the simplistic chord patterns and straightforward melodies—playing respectable covers of punk songs is an incredibly daunting task. Play too tightly, and the chaotic undertones are lost; get too heavy-handed with the Oi!s and you run the risk of sounding like a terrible middle school Green Day tribute band. To master the works of classic bands like the Descendents and the Clash is to walk a tightrope between chaos and calm, restraint and release, us and them. So you’ve got to hand it to H2O for walking the tightrope 14 times, on its new covers album, Don’t Forget Your Roots. The New York pop-punk outfit’s latest LP covers all the touchstones of the genre—from the proto punk of the Ramones to the Bostonian ska of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones—with little time for rest or reflection.
For the most part, H2O faithfully captures the spirit of the original songs, adding heaped helpings of hyperactivity for good measure. “I Wanna Live” updates the aggro-heavy garage of the Ramones original with a horde of snarling, cutting guitars. When lead singer Toby Morse belts the titular refrain, it’s elevated from a desire to a manifesto—a sense of urgency Joey would have wanted (incidentally, Joey gets a shout-out as the song dissolves into a sea of reverb—a nice touch). The Bad Brains mainstay “Attitude”—a cut that’s surprisingly demanding due to its ever-shifting tempos and its oscillating vocals—is also given a fitting tribute, with throatier yelps, meatier guitars, and pleasant hints of rockabilly throughout. Especially delightful are the tracks that show off bassist Adam Blake’s impressive dexterity—a pogo-ing rendition of Rancid‘s “Journey To The End,” a pointed update of Dag Nasty‘s “Safe”.
As with any covers album, there are bound to be a few duds. “Train In Vain” lacks the infectious gloom and Cajun stylings that made the Clash original (and for that matter, the Annie Lennox cover) so unique; instead, it’s smeared with obnoxious heys and nos that could have belonged to a Sum 41 b-side. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones fixture “Someday Suppose,” on the other hand, sounds uncharacteristically empty without a brass ensemble behind it, making H2O’s ska tribute unsuccessful.
All in all, however, Don’t Forget Your Roots is a worthy compilation of some of the best punk songs of the past 30 years, performed by an equally worthy band that, in its sixteenth year, continues to set the standard for satisfying, no-frills pop punk. Call it punk-rock history, taught by one of the genre’s best modern purveyors.