Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Have you ever heard a band you really like cover a song you love, but somehow been tremendously disappointed with the result?  Sure you have!  Covers are a dime a dozen, but good ones are as rare as...I dunno, something less common than dimes.

Consider this:

That, of course, was R.E.M. with a why-bother version of Richard Thompson's great Wall Of Death.  It's not bad, really, but it just kind of sits there--there's a half-assed attempt at making it their own, but they don't seem to want to try too hard, and what's more, they don't really commit to the song.

And maybe it's not really a song for them.  Thompson's original has a sing-along feel that makes it seem like some traditional melody, but as is usual for him, it's also very personal, with a heavy dose of anxiety and angst at its core.  To do it justice, you'd really need to embrace both its sunny melody and hidden darkness, and R.E.M. by nature tend to be a little more detached. 

In other words, they didn't connect to the song.  It happens, and usually in far worse ways.  After all, there are too many bad versions of great songs to count.  This time of year, you can't walk into a public place without hearing some generic easy-listening crooner murdering Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.  The problem is always the same: They make the song about themselves, about their show-offy styles and melismas and grandstanding.  They're not performing a song, they're demanding attention like a little kid having a hissy fit.  If you can get all the way through this, you're stronger than me:

Obviously, Aguilera can sing, but she wants to make damn well sure you know it.  The song is incidental.

Which brings us to the worst kind of cover: The clueless version.  The version performed by an artist who obviously has no idea what the song is about, but for whatever reason, does it anyway.  The popularity of karaoke shows like The Voice seem to encourage this sort of thing, but it's a long and ignoble tradition, sometimes done with actual malicious intent (Pat Boone removing any trace of soul from classic R&B songs, and somehow reaping profits that the actual creators of the material were denied), but most often it just happens because the music industry is a terrible thing that must constantly feed on itself.

Nothing illustrates this better than the endless string of Beatles covers.  There have been countless albums full of the damned things, jukebox musicals on stage, and terrible, terrible movies.  And the worst of these by far is the 1978 disaster Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, starring Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees as ersatz Mop Tops.  Inexplicably produced by George Martin, the Fifth Beatle himself, the soundtrack was one dreadful misjudgement after another, performed by artists who simply don't seem to understand the basic emotions of the songs they're performing.  Let's take a listen to Sandy Farina's version of Strawberry Fields Forever, and observe John Lennon's wistful classic turned into some faux-Olivia Newton-John styled pop                                                                                                

 Ugh.  Well, we won't do that again.

But obviously, there are good covers.  But even then, they sometimes try too hard.

Great song, good cover.  I mean, Tom Jones sings the hell out of it--that's what he does--but Art Of Noise approaches the material as something to be deconstructed, and includes so many distracting bells and whistles that the actual song is almost secondary.  Which is kind of ironic, really, because Prince is often prone to over-producing his own work, but Kiss in its original form is one of the few times he lets the song do the work.

And that's really what it comes down to.  Marshall Crenshaw's version of Abba's Knowing Me, Knowing You is one of my all-time favorites, simply because Crenshaw has the good sense to leave well enough alone.  Nothing here is significantly different than the original recording; even the keening, minor-chord guitar solo comes straight out of the Benny & Bjorn playbook.  But simply by singing it in a straightforward manner, in his own sad, resigned voice, Crenshaw makes it sound like it came straight out of his own repertoire.  It's an approach all singers should take: Always trust the song.