Cover songs are strange beasts. Songs that affect not only the average listener but another artist enough so that they feel compelled to put their own spin on the tune can sometimes win new fans, alienate existing ones, or pass indifferently into the aether.
I don’t appreciate the note-for-note remakes nearly as much as the ones that put a truly personalized stamp on the work. I think those NfN-ers do provide some insight into the covering artists’ tastes and susceptibilities, but the ones that really get to me are the ones that are notably different in some way from the original.
Some of my closest friends who are also serious music aficionados aren’t as moved by such redos, as I’m sure is the case with many. Why listen to another version of a song they’ve already heard?
I like them specifically because they’re other versions of songs I know and love.
So what are some of the best examples? I can think of a few off the top of my head.
The song in my library that’s been covered the most is without question Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” (I have a voluminous playlist of only Dylan covers, which we’ll get to in a minute.)
Which version is the best? They all are, precisely because they’re all different.
That song, in fact most if not all of Bob’s canon, is sturdy, pliable, resilient- like all great songs, no matter the period or genre. That’s one of the reasons that so many Beatles’ (and former Beatles’) songs have received similar treatment. (More on those topics later, too.)
Whether it’s Michael Hedges’ blistering, polymanual acoustic version, the probably best-known Jimi Hendrix pass – such a signature for him that many incorrectly believe the song to be his – or Neil Young’s fuzzy paean from the early 80′ Bobfest concert, none of the song’s tension, mysticism or sense of menace lying just over the horizon is lost, only filtered through different voices, different instruments, different palettes and different minds.
Brief aside: if it weren’t for the many Dylan covers out there, I’m almost sure I would not have the same appreciation for his work, simply because of his singing voice. Let’s be honest, even in his prime it was nothing grand or dramatic (which, granted, provided a great contrast to the grandeur of the words themselves, and gave countless Bohemians and Beatniks the courage to get up and do their own stuff, too, reasoning that, “I don’t think my singing could sound much worse than that…”)
Edie Brickell’s “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” Indigo Girls’ “Tangled Up in Blue,” and (again) Neil Young’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” with its backdrop of air strikes and machine guns from Gulf War I, are as poetic and haunting and powerful as when they were first sung in coffeehouses and bus stations almost 25 years before these new versions were recorded.
Everyone’s probably heard more covers of Beatles tunes than from any other artist. Some are sublime, some merely tolerable, many not so much of either, acting as Muzak in the interminable elevator ride to the dentist’s office. There have been some good ones, though: Seether’s fairly recent take on “Across the Universe,” Corrine Bailey Rae’s “Blackbird” with Herbie Hancock on keys (live from the White House, no less,) Aerosmith’s “Come Together” from the dreadful Bee Gees vehicle/movie (and Joe Cocker’s version of the same song from the much better “Across the Universe” film,) and Cocker’s “With a Little Help from My Friends” all fall into the successful reinterpretation camp, for me. Tina Dico’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is a must-hear, too.
There have been some really interesting, and really great, covers of songs from the post-Beatles era, too. Girlyman’s “My Sweet Lord,” with its otherworldly harmonies and simple guitar line loses none of the earnestness of Harrison’s original; Young’s “Imagine” from one of the many 9/11 tribute shows (I didn’t realize until writing this how many varied covers Neil Young has provided…) is surprisingly touching coming from that particular throat; and Dave Grohl’s “Band on the Run” from the same White House gig that saw Rae’s “Blackbird,” and Elvis Costello’s “Penny Lane” from the same room, for that matter, are all excellent examples of artists being energized and transformed by the original material, yet still able to leave their own signatures.
For years one of my favorite bands hardly ever got covered, and I think there was a reason: nobody at the time could match the strength, depth, or intensity of the best Led Zeppelin songs. Within the past few years, tho, several have tried and more than a few have succeeded.
The first time I heard Tool’s “No Quarter” I had to pull off the road and turn it up. (That’s only happened one other time that I remember, and the source for that one is too embarrassing to reveal here…) There were practically tears in my eyes as the dark dirge unfolded, the same deep but never explained foreshadowing perfectly mirrored in the beyond-heavy underpainting of the music, the arrangement that began familiarly enough but which slowly unspun as the song played out, Maynard’s muffing of the key lyrics – I think unintentionally – which somehow keep intact the gist of the futility of trying to defend against a never-named, mystical and mysterious foe, and of how little the ones who stand and wait can do when they “know they won’t be home tonight.” From the crushing guitars to Danny Carey’s monstrous, mammoth drumming, this easily comes the closest to capturing the original intent of the song while still leaving an indelible Tool stamp behind.
Corrine Bailey Rae (again) offers a beautifully jazzy reworking of “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” one of the most moving bluesy tracks Zep ever tackled. Lacking only the waterfalling cascade of Page’s incredible solo, Corrine easily captures the pain, worry and doubt of the lover left behind, and choosing that cover for her first full-length album was probably the single biggest reason I began digging more deeply into her canon, and why I follow her to this day. Plant’s screams of frustration and pain are transformed into understated, almost whispery resignation, with no loss of emotion in that translation. She exhibits that emotional range live as well or better than on her recordings, and that’s coming from someone who’s never been and probably never will be a fan of any sort of Jazz.
Rodrigo y Gabriela’s acoustic and quasi-flamenco version of “Stairway” deserves a mention, too. It’s probably the only cover of that song that doesn’t seem like a parody to me.
One of the only covers that seems to improve on Zeppelin’s original is not really a cover at all. Page and Plant’s reworking of “Kashmir” from the Unledded gig in the early 80′s provides an arrangement that I’ve always thought Page would have orchestrated if he’d had the resources at the time of Physical Graffiti’s original sessions. The many Middle Eastern percussive and stringed instruments played by their local experts onstage with P&P, and Page’s reworking of some of the key middle sections, make this a completely different and in my opinion better version than the original. That would likely not be the case if it hadn’t been done by Jimmy and Robert, and probably would have been even better if they hadn’t lost John Paul Jones’ phone number, as he claimed a few years later.
Zeppelin covers got the ultimate redux within the last few years with Jealous Butcher Records’ lovingly produced package of relatively unknown PNW bands playing nothing but their favorite Zep tunes on three discs. “From the Land of the Ice and Snow” is fairly uneven at points, and has weird takes, note-for-note modernizations, and several truly inspired revisions among its many cuts. The album package itself is a gem, too, with the discs themselves reminiscent of the old red, black and green Atlantic vinyl encased in a modern homage to the previously mentioned Physical Graffiti.
Standouts on that one include “Over the Hills and Far Away” redone as a bluegrass number by The Mighty Ghosts of Heaven; DCFC’s Chris Walla doing “In the Light;” “The Ocean” as interpreted by Laura Veirs; M. Ward playing an achingly beautiful and even softer version of the instrumental Bron-y-aur; and a deliciously twisted, Boho-bongo “Dancing Days” by the equally strange-named Miss Murgatroyd & the Queens of Heart. Each of these remakes is different enough – in most cases very, very different – that they bring a completely new but not irreverent impression to the old favorite or the previously obscure. A few of the others on this collection are very honest to the original – too much so, for my tastes. Antlerand’s “Rain Song,” for example, while showcasing the band’s prowess and love for the song, preserves every nuance from Zeppelin’s version, and as such it gets much less of my attention.
Another key function of the cover song is to expose newer generations or fans of other genres to different artists and styles. I know that I have never and likely will never appreciate Patti Smith’s oeuvre, regardless of the plenitude of artists I respect and admire who tout how seminal and forward-thinking her work was, and how it’s informed their work. (Sorry, Mr. Stipe.) But when I heard Allison Moorer’s “Dancing Barefoot,” a song I’d never even heard at all, I gained a modicum of respect for Ms. Smith. (Though admittedly it did not make me rush out and sample her backlog; I still think I’ve heard enough to know all I need to know in that department.)
Michael Jackson is another example. Whether you like his stuff or not, and I do not, he was the King of Pop and knew how to craft a hooky, dancy, pop song. Hearing some of those songs reinterpreted in such a way that the words can be sung (to me) in a more relatable, heartfelt way has definitely made me appreciate the unnoticed subtleties and deft touch that he had with his songwriting. Snowblink’s “Human Nature,” recorded in their Daytrotter session last year, reveals a beautiful vulnerability even before the spoken overlaid outro with Jackson lambasting someone for calling him ‘Wacko Jacko.’ Hearing (and seeing) “Billie Jean” performed live in a small listening room in the Civil Wars’ inimitably spare and pristine style makes it practically ache and throb, which, granted, the Civil Wars can do with almost any song, theirs or others’. Likewise, Nickel Creek’s live rendering of “I Want You Back,” (also done with heart-wrenching effectiveness by the CW’s,) has much the same effect: it’s an old song, but a good one, and one I would probably never have listened to again if they hadn’t taken it out for a spin.
Some of my other favorite bands are almost never covered, either because the music is too complex, too dated, or not repeatable even in a modern setting. Rush falls into this category for me. Some of their material seems ripe to be remade, (“Closer to the Heart” would seem to be a perfect vehicle for any of the chanteuses making the rounds in the Indie-folk world today,) but the only two I am aware of are Billy Corgan’s reading of “Limelight,” brilliant lyrically like all of their stuff, and Audioslave (much and unfairly maligned they may be,) doing a passable version of “Working Man.”
Live covers hold a special place for me, as they seem to give us a glimpse into the thinking and layered musical development of the people and bands we came to see, even more so than when the covers get recorded. There are many artists I see fairly regularly where part of the anticipation of the shows is wondering which one or two covers they might pull out.
At a recent Aaron Lewis solo acoustic show, for instance, he half-jokingly broke into Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” I’ll say it again in case you missed it: at a SOLO show, playing only an ACOUSTIC guitar, Staind’s front man played 3/4 of “War Pigs” before laughingly crashing to a sloppy halt. He shouldn’t have stopped – it was one of the highlights of a show that included several decent cover songs. (That opinion may be tempered by the fact that the show was heavily Countrified, from the venue and the crowd to the setlist. The highlights were few and far between, but they were definitely high.)
The Infamous Stringdusters debuted a bluegrass version of U2′s “In God’s Country” that sounded so good in that format that I wondered why nobody had ever done it that way before.
As mentioned before, The Civil Wars always choose excellent, unexpected songs to cover in their shows. I’ve seen them three times in the last 12 months and they’ve never played fewer than two per show, from Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm,” (also available on their recent Daytrotter set,) to the two Jackson classics, to a haunting “You Are My Sunshine,” to Sade’s “No Ordinary Love.”
I could go on for pages. At latest count, there are about 100 covers rated 4 or 5 stars in my library, and over 400 covers in total, around 20 of which are Dylan songs – including six takes on “Watchtower.” (For those keeping score at home these are by Dave Matthews, Hendrix, U2, Lenny Kravitz, Michael Hedges and Neil Young.)
Finally, special mention but woefully small descriptions go to the following favorites:
Lyle Lovett, “Friend of the Devil,” slow and tasty
Michael Hedges, “Pinball Wizard”
Sara Bareilles, “In Your Eyes”
Willie Nelson, “Gravedigger” (extra points for recording it on his 80th birthday with DMB)
Greg Laswell, “Your Ghost”
Marie Digby, “What I’ve Done” (who knew Linkin Park’s crunching guitars from this powerful tune would translate so well to a siren singing softly on her piano?)
Eddie Vedder, “My City of Ruins” live from Lincoln Center, “More Than You Know” and others from his most recent album
Missy Higgins & Brett Dennen, “Breakdown”
Andrew Belle, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” (complete with phone ringing in the middle)
Dave Grohl & Norah Jones, “Maybe I’m Amazed” from the Kennedy Center Honors
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, “Paint It, Black’” “White Rabbit,” and many, many more greats
Damien Rice and Angus & Julia Stone, “You’re the One That I Want”
Love them or hate them cover songs will always be around, and fans will always be there to weigh in on them. Over and over and over again.
What are some of your favorite covers? What do you like most (or least) about them? Let me know!