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How To Tell A Great Song?

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So reading Christweb I ran across this post talking about a new Paul Anka record doing swing versions of recent rock hits.

Curious, I went looking and found this site where you can sample all the tracks.

It’s not as bad as you might think. Some of the cuts are pretty awful, but some are stupendous. My fav? – “True” originally by Spandau Ballet, maybe because even in its pop arrangement it had some swing to it. Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face” holds up remarkably well also. I was really rooting for Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” but the clip never got to the hook so it was hard to tell.

Anyway, that set me to wondering — if a song handles a new arrangmenet well, does that make it a great song? I certainly feel that way about some. My favorite of all time – “Shameless” written by Billy Joel, but rearranged magnificiently by Garth Brooks.

The more I think about it, the more I think this is true. Good lyrics and a strong melody will stand up to just about any arrangement. Cuts that sound fantastic in one genre, but don’t hold up are likely too gimmicky — a pleasant collection of sounds perhaps, but not necessarily rising to the level of a song.

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  • I agree with you on “Shameless” by Garth Brooks… terrific arrangement.

  • interesting John, and i must thank you. i was watching Nip / Tuck last night and they played Eyes Without A Face. I’ve since been goin mad trying to remember who it was. It was of course everyones favourite comedy punk.

  • He was on Letterman last night and did the Nirvana “Teen Spirit” song, and in the interview they were talking about the albums as thought it was something nobody ever thought to do before — swing/lounge versions of rock music. (Uhh.. Pat Boone?)

  • godoggo

    “Good lyrics and a strong melody will stand up to just about any arrangement.,”

    No, I don’t agree. Certain kinds of melodies, chord changes and lyrics work well only in certain styles and grooves. People have been trying for decades to do jazz versions of Beatles songs, and the results are generally pretty weak. Doesn’t mean they’re bad songs, it just means they don’t bend that way.

  • Aside from a couple tracks (“Teen Spirit,” “Blackhole Sun,”) Anka’s reworkings actually work quite well. I think you could easily play this for someone not familiar with the originals and they’d think Anka was doing new music. The Nirvana and Soundgarden tracks just don’t have the kinds of melodies, nor lyrics, that stand up to the kind of exposure that big-band arrangements typically feature, but many of the rest are actually quite enjoyable.

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  • godoggo

    I just wanted to add one more observation: a skilled Afro-Cuban jazz ensemble can spin gold out of any song, good or bad.

  • HW Saxton

    A skilled Afro-Cuban band can also take
    a great song and make it better. Such as
    Mongo Santamaria’s remake of Cold Sweat
    by James Brown. Mongo takes that one all
    the way back to it’s African roots and
    easily makes it three times funkier than
    JB’s original version.

  • And then there are some songs that were so positively done ‘right’ the first time that any attempt (no matter how well intentioned) is just not going to measure up to the original.