All the cool kids are discussing cover songs, and Jim Henley has links. Not to mention a list of his own. I’m late to the party, as usual, but I plead overstretch– we had dinner guests Saturday, followed by frantic paper-writing Sunday, and I spent today fuming over being stuck in a courtroom suffering through the most aggressively stupid voir dire process ever. I thought that there could be no other system that could rival the BCS for sheer stupidity, but I was wrong.
But that’s a rant for another day. In an vague attempt to cool off before I have to go back for another day of trial by ordeal, here are some scattered thoughts on cover songs.
It’s sort of a broad topic, actually, and there are lots of different subcategories. There are covers that most people don’t know are covers– Kate once accused Tom Waits of covering Rod Stewart, even though Waits is the guy who wrote “Downtown Train” in the first place. I was surprised to learn (via a perfectly cromulent post on the subject that “Tomorrow, Wendy” was a cover (I’ve never heard the original), and there are probably a great many people out there who think that Elvis Costello wrote “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”
Of course, that sort of shades into the category of songs that the covering artist has made their own. The quintessential example is probably “All Along the Watchtower,” which is a perfectly serviceable Dylan song that got raised to a whole new level by Jimi Hendrix (I wish I could explain what it is about that intro that’s so amazingly creepy…). Prince put “Nothing Compares 2 U” on his Greatest Hits collection, but the version everybody remembers is by Sinead O’Connor, before she went all goofy (of course, to be fair to the Intermittently Named One, I heard a version of the Joan Osbourne chestnut “One of Us” that he did that by all rights ought to displace the original). I’ve heard the original version of “Hallelujah,” and it didn’t make any real impression, while the Jeff Buckley version blew me away.
A fair number of cover songs seem to exist only for the sheer weirdness and warped humor of it. I’m rather fond of the Meat Puppets version of “A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation),” and “Just Like Heaven” really needed the heavy-metal guitar break on the chorus that Dinosaur Jr. added, but I can’t really pretend that they’re not silly. The same is probably true of Greg Dulli’s lounge-singer treatment of “If I Only Had a Heart,” and a lot of the bluegrass-metal songs cited by Jim and others as well. I thought that Metallica, of all bands, had an entry for this category, but it turns out to be a note-perfect cover of some other band’s arrangement of “Whisky in the Jar.”
The most memorable category of cover tunes is probably the cover that should never have happened. Somebody should’ve been clubbed to death before the Fugees were allowed to mess with “No Woman, No Cry”, and I really, really hate the Cowboy Junkies version of “Sweet Jane.” (I’m aware that it strongly resembles an alternate version done by the Velvet Underground, to which I can only say that Lou Reed has never been known for his stunningly good judgement…) The worst I’ve run across in recent memory is probably the Joan Baez version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, which was simply horrifying. Closer to my own musical era, a number of people on other blogs have approvingly cited recent covers of cheesey 80′s tunes (Reel Big Fish doing “Take On Me,” for example, or Save Ferris doing “Come On, Eileen”), but they generally leave me asking “Why?” Without the unreal falsetto, a-ha just doesn’t have that much to offer, and I was much happier not knowing what the Midnight Runner in the overalls was mumbling, thank you very much.
The worst offenders in this category often turn out to be artists re-working their own songs (that, or Star Trek cast members). I was seriously underwhelmed by the acoustic version of “Layla” that became so inescapable some years back (it loses all the energy of the original), but the most egregiously awful self-cover is probably “Don’t Stand So Close to Me ’86.”
(Which is not to say that self-covers are intrinsically awful– some artists re-invent their own songs to great effect. Bob Dylan is probably the king of this– he doesn’t seem to play a song the same way twice. When we saw him in concert, he did a country-tinged “It Ain’t Me, Babe” that was almost wistful– more of a regretful, “if I could, I would” kind of take on the song, rather than the kiss-off of the original. A minor change of emphasis here and there, and it was like a whole new song. Of course, he is a genius…)
The biggest single category of cover songs has to be the utterly undistinguished cover. These are generally nearly note-perfect copies of the original, and they’re generally quickly forgotten. The cover of “The Boys of Summer” by the Ataris that almost everyone mentions is a good example. Somewhat surprisingly, it doesn’t actually piss me off– it’s just too inoffensive for that, and it’ll be gone soon. Examples of this abound, or ought to, but they’re kind of hard to come up with, because they’re so ephemeral. A lifetime achievement award ought to go to Lenny Kravitz, though, for making every song he plays sound like a reverent cover of somebody, even when he wrote the tune.
In the end, as many other people have noted, the best cover songs are those that make some sort of significant change to the original, be it gender, genre, or some subtler twist that makes the song sound new again. My favorite cover song at the moment is probably “Lost in the Supermarket” by the Afghan Whigs– they take the Clash song, slow it down a hair, and put a soul-crooner spin on it without losing the original feel. They throw in a bit of “Train in Vain,” and some Ben E. King for good measure. It’s a great piece of work.
Of course, Kate and I danced to that song at our wedding (it wasn’t the first dance, but it was memorable), so I might be just the slightest bit biased. But, having gotten from Jury Duty Hell to that happy memory in just shy of 1100 words, I’m going to stop now, and go to bed.