The only common thread among my recent live music excursions is that the artists all performed at least one cover song that I deemed awesome. Weezer taking on Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” and Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks”? Yes, please. Local grrl rockers EZ Tiger tearing into “Jeepster” by T. Rex? I think I’m in love. Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek killing “Different Drum” with an assist (and new lyrics!) by its author, Mike Nesmith? Well, now I just sound like I’m bragging.
I can’t help it; I love a good cover.
I know some of you out there would rather bands just play all THEIR songs in concert, all the time. No band wants to be branded as a “cover band” (I’m guessing since this is the mark of an inexperienced band in a lot of people’s eyes), unless they completely give themselves over to the concept. I’m thinking of stuff like the 80’s experience of The Spazmatics or the renowned Smiths tribute act Sweet and Tender Hooligans. Others turn the presentation of cover songs into an event. Thinking locally here, about Adam Marsland’s “70s Show” nights at the Cinema Bar of that decade’s songs, and August 26-27’s extravaganza of 100 cover songs (with no repeats) there. Simon Petty and Sid Jordan of Minibar cover a classic album from start to finish once a month at Renee’s Courtyard Cafe; August 28th, it’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.
I also know that the definition of “good cover” varies widely amongst us all. If you attempt an AC/DC song in my presence, I’ll likely run for the exit, as I can’t stand them…unless you bring something substantial to the proceedings. Conversely, if an artist I don’t like dares to interpret one that I love, I’m not going to take it well. I’m looking at you, Jessica Simpson, and your sacrilegious-to-me attempt at “Angels” by Robbie Williams. I’m not saying she didn’t sing the shit out of it; I just think she never needed to do in the first place.
Prejudices now aired, I’m going to attempt to offer my thoughts on How To Do A Good Cover Song:
MAKE THE SONG YOUR OWN…
When you think of “All Along the Watchtower”, whose version comes to mind first? I’m guessing most of you jumped to Jimi rather than Dylan. I wonder how many youngsters out there don’t know that it was Leonard Cohen and not Jeff Buckley who wrote “Halleluiah”. Devo are masters at interpreting a song in their style but keeping it interesting; check out their takes on “Working in a Coal Mine” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” for starters.
…BUT NOT TOO MUCH YOUR OWN.
My love of R.E.M. now legend on this blog, I’ve heard them cover scores of songs. Frustratingly, whether it’s Robyn Hitchcock’s “Arms of Love”, Television’s “See No Evil” or even “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, the end result sounds a little too much like…an R.E.M. song. I’ve mentioned Amy Winehouse’s cover of The Zutons’ “Valerie” from the Mark Ronson project Version before. The whole of the Version album is solid, but when finished listening, you realize that the producer’s vision colors the songs to an extreme. They’re all Ronson-ified. I realize this is a razor-thin and highly subjective line of reasoning. I guess what I’m saying is…
Because if I hear about one more formerly-cool rocker presenting “The Great American Songbook” in a bid for latter-day relevance (read: easy money), I’m going to scream. Et tu, Rod Stewart? Going back to “Halleluiah” for a moment, I have two requests of the musical world. 1. Stop covering this song. 2. If you must cover this song, please avoid doing so in the style of Jeff Buckley.
Radiohead seems to inspire tons of cover songs and albums, like the reggae-infused Radiodread or Christopher Riley’s piano tribute True Love Waits. I’ve heard a recording of Radiohead themselves presenting “the sexiest song ever written”: Carly Simon’s Bond theme “Nobody Does It Better”. It’s OK to cover an unexpected band (like Ray LaMontaigne bringing the soul to Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”) or to do it in an unexpected style (see Apocalyptica’s first few albums, or pretty much Jamie Cullum’s entire career).
…AND I DON’T MEAN IRONICALLY…
Radiodread and Apocalyptica do what they do with more than a modicum of respect for the artists they cover. Releasing a cutesy cover for the sake of hype tends to land a band exactly one hit single and then consignment to the “Where Are They Now?” bin. The late 90s and early aughts brought a rash of these one-hit wonders. Think Alien Ant Farm and “Smooth Criminal” or Orgy and “Blue Monday”. The 90s also unleashed an onslaught of “tribute” albums done with the artists of the day that are pretty hit or miss. That said, these albums are undeniably catnip to me; it’s hard to resist 13 takes on, say, Schoolhouse Rock tunes or cartoon songs. Remember Tripping Daisy doing the theme song to “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters”? Remember Tripping Daisy?
…BUT BE CREATIVE WITHIN REASON.
Did the world need the gimmick of Pat Boone doing a heavy-metal covers record? What on earth possessed actress Scarlett Johansson to release an album of nothing but Tom Waits songs? The risk of aiming too high is missing really hard. This is the kind of mentality that gives us shit like those Benedictine monks chanting “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
SHARE YOUR HISTORY…
Going back again, I learned about Robyn Hitchcock’s “Arms of Love” and Television’s “See No Evil”, not to mention a cover they do kill, Wire’s “Strange”, thanks to R.E.M.’s cover versions. When a band covers artists that they themselves love, it opens a unique window into their influences. A sterling example of this is Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, which gives as much audience to band favorites the Meat Puppets, David Bowie and the Vaselines as it does to Nirvana.
…AND KNOW THEIR HISTORY.
A cautionary tale for you: Sixpence None the Richer covering “There She Goes” by The La’s. A verymuchChristian group releasing as a single a song that is widely known to be about heroin abuse. Yea Lord! (And no, I’m not just gunning for them because they deigned to cover Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over”.)
Again, I do feel that a cover song executed well by any artist can be a real treat. Long story short, all my theorizing on cover songs likely comes to this: choose a song from the heart, and interpret it with brains and guts. That should get you close to the watchtower.
Three very diverse covers of Nine Inch Nails songs…
Devo’s somewhat straightforward (for them) version of “Head Like a Hole”:
Maxwell’s version of “Closer” – re-envisioned as a gospel stomper:
Johnny Cash’s untouchable take on “Hurt”. This song is his now: