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?


  1. Ronstadt's versions/iinterpretations are remarkable in many ways. Never considered her MOR until those late 80s duets. No one sings like her no one even tries. Luv her Alison and so much more. Good article though.

  2. I still haven't decided on my most-indestructible-song-that-has-been-covered-well-many-times but I think I do know my favorite coverer and, not surprisingly, it's also maybe my favorite voice: Rosanne Cash. "I'm Only Sleeping," "Tennessee Flat Top Box," "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," "Imagine," "Come See About Me" (the latter two are unrecorded, I think) -- I love them all. (And I would also argue that her "The List" is the exception to the album-of-covers rule.)

  3. Oh, but I'm so glad you mentioned Ronstadt, too!