Friday, February 28, 2014

Cover Me (Redemption 3)

What makes a great cover?

How about whatever makes a great song; a catchy melody, interesting lyrics, memorable singing, a fisherman’s array of hooks, and original interesting production, created again in an alternate universe, the same, but utterly different.

Example: “Alison” Elvis. Linda.
Bitter, angry accusation or tender love song lullaby?
The same but such very different interpretations (and as much as you can slag on Linda Ronstadt for being MOR, she has a lovely voice and her covers endure).

Sometimes what makes a great cover starts from an original that maybe you didn’t love but results in a cover version that you do.

Example: “Up on a Roof” Drifters, James Taylor
I have learned to love the original Drifter’s version. 

Or sometimes you have an adored original, but another version arrives that makes you rethink everything you thought about the original until you can’t pick favorites between parent and child.

Example: “Sweet Jane” Velvet Underground, Cowboy Junkies
Street tough declaration or narcoleptic lament? I defy you to tell me which is the definitive version.

And sometimes, a cover is so great that it makes you fall in love (sometimes again) with a forgotten or ignored original.

Example: “Nothing Compares to You” Sinead O’Connor, Prince (the Family)
I remember The Family. It was the heyday of prince when every other song on the radio had his input on it. I love Sinead’s version, but do yourself a favor and go back to the source (prince, by way of family) and tell me that isn’t fun and why on earth did you not dig it the first time around.

Example: “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” Love the straight ahead, heart on the sleeve barroom sprawl of nick lowe’s original. Love elvis costello’s snarly cover, love midnight oil’s punky plea. I started out with elvis’s version, swooned to midnight oil’s live version at their first ave show in 1987 (“we aren’t known as the most optimistic band in the world, but we like to think this is true” or something like that), but that original version by nick lowe does me just fine.

According to and Wikipedia, either "Yesterday" by the Beatles or "Eleanor Rigby" are the most covered songs, with over 100 versions each. Can’t rightly recall any other versions of those two versions. In fact, I can’t recall any cover of a Beatles tune that I’ve liked (and yes, Elton John and Joe Cocker, I’m talking to you). Not sure why that is, because all those songs have everything I would expect in an original. But I’m not saying you shouldn’t mess with the classics, you just have to, as an artist, have the right intent when you are covering a song.

For me to love a cover, I think the artist has to really love a song. It has to mean something to them for a long time, something essential to their understanding and appreciation of pop music (pop music meant in the broadest terms possible). Just a nod to Bob, or a cover of this week’s flavor because it’s a catchy song never really works for me. But when Rickie Lee Jones covers “Rebel Rebel” you know she’s telling you as much about herself as she is about how much David Bowie meant to her. And I’m a sucker for that layered history in a cover. (I love her “Walk Away Renee” cover too. She owns that cover like she wrote it; another of her sad, lost characters drifting along the edges and it breaks my heart whenever I hear it)

Successful covers should reinterpret or redefine a song. I don’t want a paint by numbers covers. Those carefully guided, not for note re-enactments are pointless and although they might be sincere homage to the original, they always smack of laziness or artistic bankruptcy. Hard enough to make one successful cover that compliments the original, much less exceeds it. rare is the artists who regularly delivers. And don’t even get me started on the full albums of covers. Those just mean fulfilling a record company contract and I can’t bear to make myself listen. The caveat to that corollary is Famous Blue Raincoat which is just a brilliant album and pretty much every cover on that album is genius (even getting Leonard Cohen to cover himself).

A cover should change the context or the original. Take a heavy metal tune and turn it into an acoustic finger pick (Mark Kozelek, especially the AC/DC covers, excels at this endeavor) They can either reinforce the meaning of of a song or completely subvert the intent. Either is fine with me. I just want there to be some purpose behind the cover, other than I like it and I wish I had written it (or I could maybe have a hit with it).

I would suggest the worst way to cover a song is to go all HGTV on it. A redressing of the original, with throw pillows on the couch and flower bouquets on the mantle isn’t going to make a great (or even good) cover. Slapping a new coat of paint on a wall might update the room, but this year’s color is next year’s dated, so fancy new production probably isn’t going to cut it. Video might have killed the radio star, but muzak, rock a bye baby and disco have done in their share of great songs too. I love my Kylie Minogue, but that HiNRG Stock Aitken Waterman cover of “The Locomotion” is inhumane torture. And I’m not sure Grand Funk Railroad’s rock retread is much better (although the harmonies on that cover ALMOST make me listen all the way through). And I’ll never believe that “god save the queen”, for all its supposed import as a political statement (wasn’t there can’t really attest one way or the other), is not remotely listenable in the sex pistols’ version (whether it is listenable as a national anthem is also completely debatable, but besides the point). Style only covers substance and I would rarely say it results in a good “cover”.

To me, the best covers strip a song down to the beams and find the structure underneath. Go down to the bones of the song; the melody, the rhythm, and the lyrics and work from there. I’m not saying a cover needs to be bare or anything, but that might be the place to start before you start knocking out walls or putting in new windows and reimagining lighting. Where is the meaning of the song? Is there room to change the context? Can the lyrics be subverted? Once you have the bride stripped bare, then you can start reimagining. A.C. Newman’s “Take on Me” is a great example of a cover done right. Pull the melody apart from the production, forget about the video (albeit a super fun one), layer on some fairly simple but complementary production and you’ve changed an overplayed locked in the 80’s pop hit into a great lost wistful indie anthem (also, this just occurs to me, but is A-Ha the father to Postal Service?).

Who are my favorite cover-ers?

I’ll always have a soft spot for Linda Ronstadt. I’ll make no apologies. She introduced me to a lot of musical history in her well chosen covers and her versions are indelibly etched in my younger psyche. I get that people wanted more from her, but she was just fine for the time for me. And she still is.

Surprisingly, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band is pure genius. “Blinded by the light (pretty much my single favorite cover, even more incredible when you consider that I can not listen to the Springsteen original),” “For You” (ditto on the can’t STAND original part), “Quinn the Eskimo,” (believe it or not, this cover, heard when I was 10 directed me back to that Bob Dylan guy), I even am partial to their cover of the Police’s “Demolition Man.” They definitely know how to reconstruct a song and make it utterly unique and memorable.

I can’t hardly have a discussion of covers without mentioning the two songwriters whose songs are likely covered as much as anyone not in the Beatles. Obviously, Dylan first and foremost. What about his songs make them so coverable; all the above mentioned items early in this entry. And add to that his, ahem, unique voice, allowing a cover-er to make a distinct interpretation that is unlikely to adhere too closely to the original. The Byrd’s covers, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” are a couple stellar examples.

Most likely you’ll go your way and I’ll go mine, but the #2 guy behind Dylan would be Leonard Cohen. But here’s the thing as much as I love his songs, and a lot of his lesser known songs are completely ripe for brilliant covers, no one quite does Cohen right. And EVERYONE covers Hallelujah (this has got to be the song with the most covers ever, right?). And they are all shite. What is it about this song that doesn’t allow anyone to do something interesting with it? Is it a Beatles syndrome again, where everyone is so in love with the original that they are afraid to reinterpret it? dunno, but everyone is so reverential with this
song. Piano arrangement with tasteful strings, copy Cohen’s phrasing. Bring on the angels and add a little extra bombast. Boring.

Ok. I’ve showed you mine, now you show me yours? What are your favorite covers? And cover-ers?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

All Our Pretty Songs (Redemption 2)

Is this sacrilege?

I'm so over Nirvana's "Nevermind". Used to love it, but now I never need to hear it again

Don't get me wrong. I don't hate it, and I agree that it is a great album. I'll even agree that it is one of the all time MOST IMPORTANT ALBUMS EVER on a couple different levels (great album critically, hugely influential on pop music and probably as important a music catalyst to pop culture/society as rap, punk and reggae.

Even on a personal level, it re-bloomed an appreciation of pop music for me back in the early 90's. Without it, i could well have just faded away, content with my memories of the good old days and remember whens, with the occasional where are they nows. Instead, I got supercharged and reinvigorated and found a ton new bands to love (and discovered a pile of bands I should have known and appreciated back in the back in the day but never got around to appreciating). I was never that into grunge (although flannel never goes out of style, baby. ) Besides, I never really considered Nirvana grunge (that was more pearl jam I think), they were really more indie, at least to my perceptions. And "Nevermind" really opened the door to a ton of contemporary indie music much like REM and the Smiths did that in the mid 80's. But unlike the 80's, I wasn't late to this party and every week brought me some amazing new sound that I was experiencing along with everyone else (added bonus, the Nirvana zeitgeist wasn't a microculture, but something that was happening EVERYWHERE so my music geekdom didn't seem quite so solo for once).

So really, why am I happy to forget "Nevermind"?

It doesn't help that they have been played to death (myself included). And it seems like every year brings some new variety of "Nevermind"/Nirvana reissue. So there is a lot of lot of overkill. But I'm not sure how overplayed matters to me. ( I'm not sick of the beatles . I'm not even sick of the early stones who have been even more overplayed.) And I barely listen to radio anymore, so it's probably been years since I heard any variety of Nirvana on the radio (or through my own devices). So aurally, not sure that is it. But I will say Musak Nirvana (and Tori Amos Nirvana....although that could be the same thing) doesn't help anything.

There is the pop culture oversaturation. You got your cobain imagery, your church of kurt (WWKD, what would Kurt think about this or that, the being /bean-ness of Frances), courtney's latest brush with inappropriate. So there is that, and it's pretty distasteful (and I suppose now I'm contributing to that pervasiveness with this ramble, so all apologies for that).

Also, I suppose, if I want to be uncharitable and revisionist, it could argued that "Nevermind" is a handful of great singles with a lot of album filler that all sounds the same. And it is a given that the Pixies did it earlier and quite a bit better. And with really only 3 albums (and even that is a stretch) there is not a lot of legacy to mine. But even though I can see both sides to the argument; great/overated, I don't really care about the comments section on this album, and I sorta think "Nevermind" transcends rants anyway.

Admittedly, Nirvana/"Nevermind" spawned a shitload of bands then and now that I just can't stand, but whatever. If people want to worship Dave Grohl and his fool fighters, they can have at it. I can easily avoid that which I do not want to hear. So although Nirvana lit a few too many creative fires on the musical horizon, I've been able to avoid too many bad music burns (and I still sorta like Dandelion, so there is that).

Maybe, when I get right down to it, "Nevermind" is so fixed in time and place for me that I can't bring it forward. Those early 90's were a pretty tumultuous time; figuring out the edumacation thing, coming out, having a pretty serious accident (not as a result of coming out, btw), realizing that I actually would have to work to make a living (not that I wasn't working, it was more just wtf kind of work/career am I actually going to have). A lot happened, in a short period of time. and more than any other piece of music (because for good or ill, I really do define periods of my life by music) "Nevermind" seemed to capture that three or four year period of moving from Minneapolis to Eau Claireand then going to grad school in Mankato. It certainly wasn't a horrible time (in fact it was pretty great other than being broke, pelvis and cash-wise both) but I don't know that I want to relive it (well....there might have been a few things I wouldn't mind going back for).

And for me, being through that period, or beyond it, or whatever, has robbed that album of all its emotional context. So now, even as I'm playing "Nevermind" while I write this, I'm not feeling it. I remember the way it hit me back then, but it's not doing much of anything for me now. It's not even hitting me like listening to a Soundgarden album now does; RAWK OUT and all that (and I have no idea why SuperUnknown has aged so well for me. Back then, at best, I found it a pleasant diversion). I fondly recall "Nevermind", and still appreciate it, and can even understand why people still love it (either for the first time or for the 1000th), and I certainly love the roads it steered me towards, but I can not (won't?) recapture that moment in time when it meant the world to me. And I guess that's why it don't need to hear it anymore.

Weirdly, Hole's "Live Through This" still plays just fine for me. Go figure.

BTW, I never need to hear Pearl Jam's Ten again either. But it's not like I was ever so in love with that one (or if I was it was only for a methaphoric weekend.) and it's not like anyone ever really critically loved eddy vedder's gulped syllables and constipated singing. (and besides, they are still making the same damn record 20 plus years later with exponentially diminishing commercial and populist favor results---also, why on earth do I keep listening/buying their albums?)