Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Last time we talked about cover songs that were loving reproductions of the originals. Whether you see them as tributes or knock-offs, the power of a good cover is undeniable. In this part we’ll delve into covers that are total renovations, for better or worse, of the versions done by their original artists. Second in my three part series on cover songs.

Total Renovations

As the name implies, total renovations are when the coverer makes the song completely their own. It’s possible you may recognize the song but only just barely, often because the melody is the only thing left in tact with everything else having been reworked. The typical reaction is “Hey, isn’t this…?”

My first offering is quite possibly the weirdest cover in the renovation class: New York electro/glam group Scissor Sisters’ disco version of “Comfortably Numb” (original by Pink Floyd.) You might say that Pink Floyd covered one or two of their own songs. Not that the radio version of “Another Brick In the Wall” is a happy-go-lucky little tune, but it’s decidedly more upbeat than what was in the movie (The Wall). However they never went disco and the Scissor Sisters rendition is every bit as bizarre as you might think, hence the special fondness for it.

There’s an amazing version of NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” done by Nina Gordon. It bears but a passing resemblance to the original, and that’s only because they’re the same words. But that’s where the similarity ends. Gordon turns it into a totally different song. The lead-in gives it a pretty, almost sing-song vibe; then she lays into the first line “Straight outta Compton, crazy motherf*!#er named Ice Cube.” Not at all what you’d expect. There was a time when I could recite the lyrics, learned exclusively from her version.

Two songs come to mind as the epitome of the total renovation type of cover. They are both stunning, practically hallowed in their ability to transform the originals into something new, into things of beauty.

First would have to be Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” from his album American IV: The Man Comes Around (the original was released as a single by Nine Inch Nails.) Overall Cash’s rendition uses the lyrics straight-up from the radio version with one notable exception: “crown of shit” is changed to “crown of thorns,” but otherwise it’s right on.

Where the Nine In Nails original comes across as somewhat angry about the state of the world and frustrated , Cash’s is more remorseful about where his life has been and the video for the song only seems to reinforce the feeling of regret and sorrow. NIN’s front-man Trent Reznor has said “…that song isn’t mine any more…” in reaction to Cash’s remake and the corresponding video.

You wouldn’t normally consider a song of heartache and regret in the cover, or of outrage and fury in the original, to be things of beauty. Listen to both versions back to back. Compare them for yourself. Knowing what we do of Cash’s life, just listening to it, concentrating on the words, is enough to make you cry. May we never know such sorrow in our own lives.

American IV also has a remake of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” that’s pretty spectacular too, although it’s closer to the original than “Hurt.” That’s mostly due to the twang guitar in Depeche Mode’s version that Cash replicates, to a degree, in his.

My second example that embodies the total renovation cover is “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley. The Leonard Cohen original was less sung and performed more in a murmur; hebetudinous, somewhat dispassionate, almost impersonal. Conversely Buckley created what many consider the definitive version. He took the song to new heights, creating a rendition that was at the same time sorrowful and a celebration of sexual release.

“Hallelujah” has been covered by more than 200 artists including Rufus Wainwright, Brandi Carlile, Willie Nelson, Justin Timberlake, John Cale, k. d. lang, and Bob Dylan. Cohen himself has said that there are many different hallelujahs depending upon the performer. But out of all those versions, by all of those artists, it is still the Jeff Buckley interpretation that stands out. His cover is, in my mind, the perfect song. It may as well have been the entire reason the music business came into existence.

Long time favorite band Tears for Fears released the song “Mad World” in 1982. It was originally intended as a B-side for their second single, “Pale Shelter,” but was held back to release on it’s own. It proved to be their first international single, although it didn’t really chart in the U.S.

Some 20 years later Gary Jules and Michael Andrews recorded a version for the Donnie Darko soundtrack. Their recording gained a cult following that prompted them to release it as a proper single in 2003 that became a runaway hit. Where the Tears for Fears original was a steady-moving synth-pop song that expresses a certain frustration with a world as seen through teenage eyes, the Jules/Andrews remake was rendered bare with just piano, cello, and the vocals comes off as somewhat languid, almost despondent. The song received a second or third wind when it was featured during the 2008 season of American Idol.

I am somewhat torn between the two seemingly disparate versions of “Mad World,” never quite knowing what to make of either of them. It seems that whenever one version comes on, I feel as though the other is what I’d rather listen to at the time.

Some cover songs can come from the most surprising places.

Take, for example, “Blinded by the Light.” Originally written in 1973 by Bruce Springsteen, it appeared on his debut album Greetings from Asbury Park N.J. Unfortunately, the song pretty much went nowhere. The Boss’s version is a pretty straight up rock-n-roll tune that sounds exactly like you’d expect an early Bruce Springsteen song.

That’s right – the Manfred Mann version that everyone knows is actually a cover. The 1977 remake starts with the chorus, then goes pretty much straight through the song, but is augmented by a lengthy bridge and significant keyboard part. Listening to them both, side by side, I’ll take the Manfred Mann version any day – sorry Boss.

Special mention goes to the Puppini Sisters, whom are best described as a modern-day Andrews Sisters. They even do a spot-on rendition of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” Their first album contains versions of “Jeepers Creepers,” “Mr. Sandman,” and “Sisters;” all of which are practically required for a close-harmony group. You would think that puts them solidly in the loving reproduction class, but that’s not what draws me to them. Their retro arrangements of more modern songs such as “Panic” (The Smiths), “I Will Survive” (Gloria Gaynor – wow!), and, my favorite, “Heart of Glass” (Blondie) are truly amazing.

In the third and final installment we’ll dig into songwriters and composers, standards, a couple revivalists, and what makes a good cover song.

Other posts in The Cover-Up