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Thursday, May 12, 2005

To Cover or Not to Cover

In the last few weeks, I've heard three cover versions of Queen's "Under Pressure." One was by the Blood Brothers, one was a collaboration between the Used and My Chemical Romance and the other one was by another collaboration, this time with members of Small Brown Bike and the Casket Lottery. The Small Brown Bike/Casket Lottery version was the best, but I wonder: how is the best way to cover a song?

Some theories on covering songs include a) be as faithful to the original b) completely rearrange the song c) do a little of both. In my opinion, those theories vary between song choice.

In the case of SBB/CL's version of "Under Pressure," they stay true to the original and their rendition sparkles. Sure, they can't hit the high notes like Freddie or Bowie could on the original, but they make this "handicap" work. Stacy from Casket Lottery has a raspy, but melodic bite in his delivery. Not someone that could replace Freddie's vocals in a Queen cover band, but rather, this is an interesting alternate view. Instrumentally, everything is performed to a T: the subtle piano fills, the hi-hat barks in the verses and the multi-tom fill in the bridge and so on.

With the My Chemical Romance/Used version, they gloss the song up with the rather sterile-sounding perfection you hear in so many mainstream rock bands. The effect is bland, but I give the band credit for trying to stick close to the original melodies.

Then there is the Blood Brothers version: stripping the original's warm melodies and replacing them with scratchy abrasion doesn't work. Devoid of any enjoyable melodies, I reach for the Small Brown Bike/Casket Lottery version.

So, for you musicians that read this blog, what's your take on doing a cover? (I'm very curious as to what Bob and Kev have to say on this subject)

Here is a list of my favorite cover tunes:
face to face's version of "Don't Change" (originally done by INXS)
The Four Tops' version of "MacArthur Park" (done by various artists from Richard Harris to Donna Summer)
The Stranglers' version of "Walk On By" (originally done by Dionne Warwick)
Ben Folds Five's version of "She Don't Use Jelly" (originally done by the Flaming Lips)
Jimmy Eat World's version of "New Religion" (originally done by Duran Duran)
Neil Finn's live version of "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" (originally done by the Smiths)

7 comments:

Nathan said...
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Nathan said...
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Nathan said...

(sorry about the two deletes -- blogger keeps posting the comment incorrectly. anyways...)

Up here in 75080, we've just started working on a Television Personalities covers band called The Grocer's Daughters (thegrocersdaughters.com). After much thought, we've decided to play the correct chords and words in the correct order, and that's about it. Have you ever heard those eerily-perfect "Hits Of The 1950's" for $19.99 plus $20 shipping and handling albums? Most of them are actually covers that sound perfect unless you listen closely (cuts out original performance royalties). That's sick. If you're not a wedding band, and if you can't interpret someone else's song and make it somewhat your own, you're either deceiving people and/or are just lame. A real challenge would be to cover a song live as a band and interpret it as a dub remix -- take say the bass line, a few guitar riffs, and a keyboard melody and create an entire song from there. Also, as long as you credit the authors, the more obscure the source material is, the better (thus our TV Personalities project).

Kev said...

Actually, in my neck of the woods (the jazz world), we do "covers" out the wazoo, only nobody really thinks of them that way. Here, they're called "standards," and they're really a rather large body of work that all jazz musicians are expected to know. Some of them are better suited for background music (wedding receptions, corporate banquets, etc.--the type of gigs we call "wallpaper," like this one), but many of them have more than enough musical integrity to stand on their own.

The challenge of playing standards is in how they're done, which actually fits nicely with your post. Sometimes, staying faithful to the original may be cool, but in many cases, the song is so old that there's no one "original" version to model, so you might do it any old crazy way: a ballad becomes a fast swing, a waltz becomes a samba, and so on. I've even been in bands that did a bossa nova with a hip-hop feel and a soul-funk tune as reggae.

It's a real interesting contrast between jazz and rock on this subject; if a rock band did nothing but covers, they'd probably be relegated to second-tier status at best, but there have been plenty of masterful jazz musicians who have spent their entire careers redefining standards, never writing even a single tune.

How does that work? I think it's because of the fact that jazz draws so heavily on improvisation; even the artist who never contributes a single tune to the canon is spontaneously "composing" his/her solos on every track of every recording (and doing completely different ones during every subsequent performance).

Certainly, there are a few standards that are so strongly associated with one artist that fewer players record them ("Body and Soul" with Coleman Hawkins, and "Giant Steps" with John Coltrane, to name a couple), but often, part of the fun is seeing how you can put your own stamp on an old chestnut.

And re Nathan's post: I was in a restaurant in Plano the other night, and I heard some really horrible knockoffs of '80s Chicago ballads (why do Peter Cetera songs without the ol' southpaw bassist himself, and even worse, with a not-so-soundalike, and synths instead of the horns?), followed by a version of Steve Winwood's "Higher Love" that sounded like it was done by the same band. Of all the cost-cutting measures a business could utilize, I never imagined generic Muzak.

Sarah E. said...

Back in the day, I used to really love covers that sounded exactly or close to the original. I still am impressed when I hear a cover that sounds much like the original, but I now prefer it when bands use their own style and interpretation when they do a cover. I feel like they're putting more of their personality into it when they give their own interpretation of a favorite song.

Kev mentioned that a rock band doing only covers would probably be second-tier, but this makes me think of Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, who do some of my favorite covers of all time, including their covers of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "I Believe I Can Fly."

And as is a side note, but I often hear covers that I like more than originals. In this category, the cover that definitely stands out for me is Rufus Wainwright's take on "Hallelujah."

Sarah E. said...

Another thing: You've intrigued me talking about those covers of "Under Pressure." I really love that song.

Eric Grubbs said...

Thanks for all the comments. I forgot about Schreeching Weasel's version of "I Can See Clearly Now." Sure, Ben Weasel is a little off-key but their rendition is pretty cool.