Look What They've Done to That Song, Man

I’m a sucker for a good cover band. It’s true. Although I prefer to hear musicians perform their own music, every now and then I enjoy listening to an old, familiar song being played in a new and sometimes unexpected way.

Now, I’m not referring to the ridiculous lookalike-soundalike tribute acts like Beatlemania or some other godforsaken reincarnation that crisscross the country every summer proclaiming to provide “the ultimate concert experience” or somesuch nonsense. I’ve been to a lot of concerts and had plenty of “experiences,” but I can only imagine attending one of these shows would be like watching a wax museum come to life — or worse, and it smells like formaldehyde. That would be my ultimate, i.e. my last, concert experience.

(Although I might be talked into seeing something really bizarro, like Lez Zeppelin, an all-girl cover band for Led Zeppelin, or MiniKiss, reportedly the “littlest tribute band in the world.” The sideshow atmosphere surrounding such an event, both on the stage and in the crowd, has an appeal all its own.)

No, what I’m talking about here is a good bar band that knows its sweet spot and plays songs by artists that fall within that range. I know several people who play in bands that, when everything comes together, make me say, “wow, you sounded just like Johnny Cash,” for instance, or “thanks, I had almost forgotten about Hootie and the Blowfish.” It also can be entertaining to hear some band stretch a bit, try something they don’t normally do but could still carry off, to honor a request shouted from the audience (yes, that was me).

Even better still is the moment when you hear an established band or artist, one that has carved out a niche using their own musical talents, break into a cover song. It can be a truly great “concert experience” when the band uses their unique sound to rephrase or reinvent someone else’s song. R.E.M was always good at this. I’ve seen them play songs like “Toys in the Attic,” “See No Evil,” and even “Radar Love” so convincingly live that I’ve thought to myself, I know that’s not their song, but it could be one of theirs. They even managed to use this chameleonic trait to achieve a certain level of success and notoriety by including cover songs on several albums. Despite what the critics thought of their decision, R.E.M.’s treatment of “Superman” by The Clique peaked at #17 on Billboard‘s Mainstream Rock Tracks and is arguably one of their most popular songs.

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that, over the past few years I have been collecting cover songs, old and new, and storing them in a playlist on my iPod. For one thing, it helps me keep track of all the music I have on tap. For another, it makes for a great party soundtrack. For instance, everyone likes hearing The Sundays do a twangy, slightly spaced-out, cheeky-chicky cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” It sounds to me the way Mick and his mates might have done it for MTV Unplugged, given the chance. It’s both a faithful and unfaithful rendition, which is the ideal mix for a good cover song — close enough to remind you of the original, yet different enough to let you hear the song in a new way. The same can be said for Franz Ferdinand’s swaggering version of “All My Friends” — when I first heard it I didn’t realize it was LCD Soundsystem’s song. Or The Futureheads’ manic, Madness-like take on “Hounds of Love” by Kate Bush. Or the thumping, upbeat discotheque remake of the Violent Femmes’ downer “Gone Daddy Gone” by Gnarls Barkley, which got a lot of airplay a few years ago. All crowd-pleasers, and mainly because they offer a refreshing turn on the familiar.

Sometimes a cover can be so fickle, as it were, and provide such a unique perspective on a song that it tops the original. That can be a boondoggle or a blessing, depending on your preference. One of the best examples of the latter case that I have on hand is the Aztec Camera cover of “Jump” by Van Halen. The original has always seemed like a fortunate accident to me, a near-parody even at the time it was released in 1984, when the band was already over itself. So it was ripe for renewal when Roddy Frame reworked it a year or so later with a nylon string guitar, slowing the pace, silencing the synths, and bringing the song back down from its big-hair-band heights. Aztec Camera’s f-you version is so good, in fact — especially Frame’s deadpan singing of the chorus punchline, “Well, you might as well … jump” — it makes me forget the original. Brilliant.

The late Johnny Cash accomplished this feat quite a few times, recording other people’s songs in a way that makes you think he wrote them. His five-album collection of “American” recordings is full of such cases in point, the most popular of which is probably “Hurt.” Whether or not you know or like the Nine Inch Nails original, you have to concede that once Cash cut his faltering, ragged version it became his song. Somehow, at the end of his career, and near the end of his life, he just seems to know the song better than the songwriter. John Cale did the same thing with his haunting, piano-only rendition of the Leonard Cohen chestnut “Hallelujah,” which may be topped only by Jeff Buckley’s graceful electric guitar take. Ironically, Cohen’s original version, in comparison, now seems like an overproduced cover.

And speaking of Cohen, sometimes cover songs can introduce great music to a new generation of listeners. About 10 years ago I picked up I’m Your Fan, a tribute record for the legendary singer-songwriter. I didn’t know much about Cohen’s work back then, so having bands I liked do updated versions of songs I had and hadn’t heard, like the rousing “So Long Marianne” by James and an edgy version of “I Can’t Forget” by The Pixies, helped me to see why Cohen is so popular and still relevant. Even my kids have gotten into new music through cover songs: The soundtrack to “Sky High,” one of our favorite movies, is chockablock with great remakes of ’80s classics, some well-crafted enough to stand on their own, like Bowling for Soup’s slightly (and deservedly) goofy reworking of “I Melt With You” or Elefant’s mopier-than-Morrissey’s version of “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.” It’s a clever ploy to hook the moms and dads, and it works. Not surprising, other Disney movies of late, such as “Shrek” (which features Buckley’s “Hallelujah”), have included covers of “oldies,” too.

That might help explain why there seems to be a sudden surge of interest in cover songs. Over the past year or so, I’ve encountered several young artists who seem to believe in imitation as an art form of flattery. And a handful of new compilations have been released that include or are exclusively based on cover material. A lot of what’s out there is really good, faithful and otherwise, and has wound up on my playlist. Here’s half a mixtape’s worth of recommendations for you to start your own collection.

“The Last Thing I Needed (First Thing This Morning),” Phosphorescent, To Willie. Willie Nelson has spent much of his career covering and messing around with other folk’s songs. So it seems only natural for Matthew Houck (aka Phosphorescent, with backing musicians) to devote an entire record to fairly faithful renditions of songs Nelson made famous. Musically speaking, and likely culturally, too, I imagine, these two men have little in common. For one thing, Houck’s voice is softer than his tributee’s and he doesn’t try to twang-up his folk-rock sensibilities. But this album works beautifully, perhaps because of these contrasts. I first heard Phosphorescent play some of these songs, including this one and “Reasons to Quit,” live in the studio at KEXP, and they quickly became the next thing I needed first thing that morning.

“Rave On,” M. Ward, Hold Time. M. Ward is a multi-talented musician and producer with an old soul whose music often sounds like it belongs to (and, with so much tube-amp reverb, literally comes from) another era. So it’s no surprise he likes to cover old songs — he is the male half of last year’s release She & Him, which included remakes of a Smokey Robinson song and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” Ward has mastered the mannerisms of early guitar guys like Dwayne Eddy and Buddy Holly, and he turns the latter legend’s rocker into a countrified, gospel, moonlit two-step on his latest release. It’s got a crazy feel, but it will send you reeling for more M. Ward.

“Atlantic City,” The Hold Steady, War Child – Heroes, Vol. 1. Who else these days is better qualified to cover The Boss but his roots-rocking torchbearers, The Hold Steady? And though they don’t deviate too much from the original outline, Craig Finn and gang fill up the spaces in this song and make it more of a rocker, throwing down some muscle-bound, Thin Lizzy-like guitar solos that should make Springsteen sneer in delight. Another standout on this amazing benefit compilation, which features many of the original artists contributing to their songs’ covers, is “Straight to Hell” by Lily Allen. Dressed up in frilly dance-club duds, this remake nonetheless works beautifully because Mick Jones, who plays and sings on the recording, was heading The Clash in that sonic direction long before the potty-mouthed Ms. Allen (or M.I.A., who sampled the original guitar lines on her infectious hit “Paper Planes”) was speaking King’s English.

“Comfortably Numb,” The Bad Plus, For All I Care. Perhaps because they are a musical mutation by nature, this jazz/rock trio, with guest Wendy Lewis on vocals, seem well-equipped to reinterpret other people’s music. Their smooth, slowed-down version of “Comfortably Numb,” for instance, is remarkable for the way the instrumentation, particularly the soft piano arpeggios, draws out the silent disaffection intended in the lyrics but understated in the original by Pink Floyd. It’s a far more interesting and haunting song in their hands. Also notable on this record is “Long Distance Runaround,” by Yes, which gets a much-needed face-lift, placing greater emphasis on the tempo changes and mood swings, highlighting the workmanship and artistry at the heart of the original.

“Train Song,” Ben Gibbard and Feist, Dark Was the Night. I have to admit that when I first heard this duet I was not aware it was a cover song. I have not paid much attention to the 1960s British folk music scene, particularly the work of Vashti Bunyan, who wrote and recorded it. But after listening to the original once or twice, and the lush treatment given it by this unlikely pairing of singer-songwriter Leslie Feist and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, I think they should collaborate on a full recording Bunyan’s songs. Look what such a project did for the careers of Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. There are plenty of other notable cover collaborations on this double-CD benefit collection — I also like the remake of Nick Drake’s “Cello Song” by The Books and Jose Gonzalez — as well as new material by the likes of Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, The National, Spoon, and Sufjan Stevens, and many others.

“Under Pressure,” Xiu Xiu, Women as Lovers. Although this cover by experimental indie-rockers Xiu Xiu (sounds like “shoe-shoe”) hews closely to the original David Bowie and Queen collaboration at the start, especially in terms of tempo and tone, it gradually opens up in more expressive, exciting ways. At one point, the song seems to come undone, with an outburst of wild, wailing sax and guitar riffs, as if the band members are overcome by the tension inherent in the title. But the multi-vocal chorus (I count at least three, including Caralee McElroy, who provides a nice contrast) leads all the instruments back together, and the song ends as satisfyingly as it began.

“In the Air Tonight,” Takka Takka, Guilt by Association, Vol. 2. OK air-drummers (and you know who you are), download this song, pull out your “sticks,” and get ready to pound the aether the way you did when the Phil Collins original battered the airwaves in 1981. I’m telling you, this cover by a young Brooklyn-based quartet who updates it by sharpening the song’s edges, is so good it will make you want to do some risky business of your own. This compilation, in its second incarnation, is loaded with new and established acts covering what one Amazon reviewer called “songs we are all scared to admit we like,” including Robbers on High Street doing a groovier “Cool It Now” and My Brightest Diamond’s supercharged version of “Tainted Love.”

Collecting, listening to, and writing about these covers reminds me of Melanie’s 1966 hit, “What Have They Done to My Song, Ma,” which chronicles a songwriter’s dissatisfaction with the way her song was recorded by others. And I imagine many bands must feel this way at some point. Perhaps even some of the artists I’ve written about above. But a bad cover can still produce record sales, even if for the wrong reasons. Of course, as Oscar Wilde once quipped, only one thing is worse than being talked about, “and that is not being talked about.”

As for Melanie, who also wrote “Brand New Key” and several other popular hits, and has released more than 30 records in her career, not to worry. Her little song was covered numerous times and became a big hit for Ray Charles, no doubt eliminating many of the worries she had to write home to mom about. And as for the singers and songs mentioned here, which have been “tied up,” “turned upside down,” etc., I suspect that “it’s all going to be all right,” as Melanie sang, everything is going to turn out all right.

As always, feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you think of my selections. Do you like hearing musicians playing other people’s songs? What cover songs do you like, or are there songs that should never be revisited?


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