Listen to the music: I live by the river

12 05 2013

When I was young and pure I thought less of musicians who didn’t write their own music nothing of musicians who didn’t write their own music, and was skeptical of covers.

Okay, sure, if they’re putting out a live album, maybe then it was okay to cover a song, but on a new disk of ORIGINAL tunes, well, they best be original, bestn’t they be?

Then I got old and things got “complicated” (read: all my standards went to hell) and while I’m still biased in favor of the singer-songwriter model, I’ve moved from bare tolerance of to wistfulness for covers.

Wistfulness might be the wrong word: it’s more that I wish pop musicians dealt with covers the way jazz musicians do, as ways to take apples and turn them into oranges or mountains or the sea. John Coltrane turned that little slip of a song, “My Favorite Things”, into a classic, fer pete’s sake, which, even given my love for all things Sound of Music, is a helluva thing to have done.

Still, there are a few songs which I don’t think should ever be covered because there is no way to top the original version: The Clash’s “London Calling”, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On?”, and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”. (I used to have more on this list, but, y’know, old and lax and all that.)

There are plenty of great covers, even of those songs which were great in the original. If Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” (Springsteen) doesn’t put you on the floor, I have to wonder what exactly is pulsing through your veins, and Tori Amos’s version of Eminem’s ” ’97 Bonnie & Clyde” so creeps me out I can’t listen to it through headphones.

Some versions are a lot of fun—Billy Bragg and his band did a great version of Dee-Lite’s “Groove Is In the Heart” for an encore at a First Ave show years ago, and I like the B-52’s “Downtown”—and some are sad: Peter Gabriel’s solo-piano cover of his own “Here Comes the Flood”. Placebo’s “Running Up That Hill” works because they take Kate Bush’s lush original and strip it down to bony need. Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris kill just about everything on their Western Wall: Tucson Sessions, but I particularly like “The Western Wall” (Rosanne Cash) and “Falling Down” (Patty Griffin).

(Patty Griffin is one of those singer-songwriters, like Leonard Cohen, whose music is more well-known in their cover versions than the originals. And no, I’m not going to get into a discussion of which version of “Hallelujah” is best, because, jesus, that’s such a magnificent and magnificently overwrought song that you’d have to be a real bonehead to screw that one up—and if there is a boneheaded version out there, I don’t want to hear it.)

Some songs are well-covered even if they don’t top the original. Eva Cassidy’s “Songbird” is lovely, but so, too, is the original Fleetwood Mac song. Jorane’s “I Feel Love” is very good, but largely because Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” is great; ditto with Talking Heads’s and Al Green’s “Take Me to the River”. And while I’ve heard and liked a fair number of Cindy Lauper’s “Time After Time,” with the exception of Cassandra Wilson’s treatment, I like the original best.

Cassandra Wilson: she is the queen and empress and goddess of song interpretation. Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” is an amazing song, and his jangly original hits all the bitter-sweet spots. But Wilson’s turn at this song turns it into longing promise, broken and fulfilled. Wilson shows you how to do covers: Pick the songs well, and make them your own.

That sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Given all of the lame covers out there—and by “lame” I mean, “uninspired, insipid, money-grubbing”—however, it apparently is not. For every Natalie Maine’s grabbing hold of “Mother” (Pink Floyd), there’s some limp Tom Petty wannabe with a country-smooth blanding of his cranky originals.

No, if you want to do more than just punch the song ticket, you have to reach down, grab the guts of the song, rip it out of the throat of the original, and make your own meal of it. Nina Simone did that with Billie Holiday’s (okay, actually Abel Meeropol’s) simmering, aching “Strange Fruit”, turning her low voice to ice as she drops the song to cold fury. The irony in Holiday’s song becomes harrowing in Simone’s. It’s the same song, and a new song.

That’s a successful cover: the same song, and a new song.


77. Kate Bush, The Whole Story
78. Cake, Fashion Nugget
79. Camera Obscura, Underachievers Please Try Harder
80. Kate Bush, The Sensual World
81. Camera Obscura, to change the shape of an envelope
82. Vinicius Cantuarias, Vinicius
83. Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Come On Come On
84. Neko Case and Her Boyfriends, Furnace Room Lullaby
85. Johnny Cash, American Recordings
86. Rosanne Cash, 10 Song Demo
87. Rosanne Cash, Interiors
88. Rosanne Cash, Rules of Travel
89. Rosanne Cash, The Wheel
90. Eva Cassidy, Songbird
91. Eva Cassidy, time after time
92. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Murder Ballads
93. Exene Cervenka, Old Wives’ Tales
94. Charms, Pussycat
95. Chop Chop (eponymous)
96. Clannad, Bamba
97. Clash, London Calling
98. Clash, Combat Rock
99. Clash, Super Black Market Clash




2 responses

12 05 2013
13 05 2013

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