Wednesday, 07 April 2010

I’m about to confess a dirty little secret that may damage my credibility as a semi-professional music appreciator — self-proclaimed though it may be — but I’m tired of hiding it. I love a good cover song. Heck, who am I kidding? They don’t even have to be good. As long as they are unique or interesting in some way, I can’t resist them.

What is a cover song? A cover song, or cover version, is a new recording or performance of a song that was released previously recorded and commercially released by someone else. Simply put, a cover song is a remake.

The term cover song was originally coined, likely as a pejorative, in reaction to record label practices at the time. In an attempt to cash in on another label’s success, some companies would hire their own band to create a sound-alike version. They would even resort to deceptive packaging to make people think they were getting the real thing and not some cheap knock-off.

But I believe that cover songs have grown beyond their questionable, even seedy, beginnings. Judge not a cover song simply because it mimics another, but give it room to grow, to come into its own. Modern covers should be looked upon as tributes to the original songs or artists, worthy of consideration in their own right.

Fundamentally there are two varieties of cover songs: loving reproductions and total renovations. Each type has it’s own appeal and I have several favorites in both groups. In this series I’ll cover those two types and offer some observations on what makes a good cover song, as well as songs that have arguably become standards.

Loving Reproductions

In the realm of cover songs, loving reproductions are where the coverer (the band doing the new rendition) makes their version sound as much like the original (the coveree’s) as they can.

Obviously there are allowances for male vs. female singers and slight changes in instrumentation, but the point in loving reproductions is that the new version identifies strongly with the original. You’re meant to immediately recognize it. You may even think you’re listening to the original until you finally decide that it doesn’t sound quite right.

First up is Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” which was covered by José González. The two versions are nearly identical. Same beat. Same tempo. Same words. Even González’s voice seems to mimic Elizabeth Frasier’s (formerly with Cocteau Twins) from the Massive Attack original. It’s as though González did a stripped down, acoustic rendition of the song. Something thing I find interesting: other artists have done covers of the José González version, notably Newton Faulkner – sparse yet quite lovely – and pop/jazz-pop singer Jamie Cullum, who sometimes does the song at his concerts. So are these covers of covers, or are they just similarly styled remakes of the original?

These next two are a bit interconnected. First is Shawn Colvin’s rendition of “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley and the second is Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone” reworked by Gnarls Barkley. Both stick fairly close to the original, overall, however they don’t hold equal appeal to me. Colvin’s stunning remake comes off as folksy, while the Gnarls Barkley cover is slightly tigher, but nearly note compared with the Femmes’ original. Colvin did something with the song, where Gnarls Barkley phoned it in. Now, this could be that I listened to the Femmes’ in high-school and somehow identify with it more and am resistant to seeing it messed with. I also have a thing for female singers in general and Shaun Colvin in particular.

At the risk of going a bit obscure, one my favorite female voices, Sia Furler, does a version of “Under the Milky Way” by The Church. It’s nearly identical to the original, but with Sia’s voice in place of Steve Kilby’s. I like The Church. I like Sia. I love this cover. It could easily be another thing about voices, but I don’t care. Next time she’s in town I hope she’ll do this song.

But why would anyone bother doing a cover if they’re just going to copy the original? Why would anyone care to listen?

I think that sometimes we just want something different, but not too different. Like a fresh coat of paint that’s the same color as before. A change of voice, a tweak in the arrangement, a new outlook on an old favorite.

Next time we’ll make a break for it with total renovations.

Other posts in The Cover-Up