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11 Jan

Covering the Covers

Lately there have been a lot of artists covering songs and posting them on YouTube or making a full covers album for iTunes consumption. It got me thinking about what should go into making a great cover and what some of my favorites are. Back in the olden days (like pre-1970), multiple vocalists would do “versions” of songs. They were not necessarily covering a song but the same song would go to a couple of artists and be released around the same time. Then it was a battle to see which version radio and record buyers liked best. A song like “Mack the Knife” hit the Top 40 five times in 1956 by five different artists – and that was before Bobby Darrin took it to #1 in 1959! This doesn’t happen anymore. The most recent example I can think of is LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood battling it out on “How Do I Live” in 1997 (Rimes won on the pop charts, but Yearwood won on the country charts and got the Grammy.)

These days, artists now just cover songs that they like, whenever they like. Usually this was done for live shows but with digital media taking over, these covers are all over the place in videos and downloads. For the most part, these covers are fairly typical and boring and don’t do much for the artist or the song. Fans of the artist may enjoy them, but for fans of the actual song, if there is nothing new or interesting about the cover, it’s a snooze-fest. Plus, unlike the 80’s were cover songs were hitting the charts (” Groovy Kind of Love,” “Mony Mony,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” etc.), they are really nowhere to be found now – except if you count those “Glee” songs (which I don’t).

So what make a good cover? For me it is the artist bring something new and fresh to the material. Anyone can take a song and change the tempo or make an “acoustic” version, but it takes some guts, vision, and the love/respect of the material to shine through. When Rick Rubin married Johnny Cash with Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” it was moving and magical. It was like hearing the song for the first time and everything behind the song – Cash’s condition, life, experience, etc. – brought new depth and meaning to the lyrics.

One recent makeover I really like is a cover of the hideously wonderful “Afternoon Delight” originally done by the Grammy winning (!) Starland Vocal Band. I used to love this song as a kid (and still have the 45rpm record) and now one of my fave artist, Bleu – who rarely does covers – has created a lazy-day version that fits this song perfectly. Even though the song was about doin’ it in the afternoon, the original song was full of smiles, winks, and long flowery skirts swaying innocently. Bleu made the song much more intimate and really captures the sunny, wonderful feeling of what an afternoon delight should be – and it sounds like something created in the afterglow.

“Afternoon Delight” by Bleu

Here are some other covers where I think the artist got it right:

“Walk Away RenĂ©e” by Rickie Lee Jones – The Left Banke’s great pop hit gets transformed into a haunting dream full of emotion. I’ve always thought this was a stunning rendition and one of my favorite covers.


“Times Like These” by Glen Campbell – How in the world can you make a Foo Fighters song sound like a long-lost Jimmy Webb tune? Just like this. A perfect homage to Campbell’s past glory with a contemporary rock song.


“Thank You” by Tori Amos – She did a couple of other covers for her “Crucify” EP like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Angie,” but it is this Led Zeppelin classic that she takes to a whole other level.


“Shine” by Dolly Parton – During her bluegrass resurgence, Parton chose some interesting songs to cover and did them very well. I think the one that sounded most natural was this Collective Soul hit. She emphasizes the spiritual side of the song and got some class-A pickers to back her.


More to come…


Categories: Commentary, Essay, Music
  1. Lisa
    January 22nd, 2012 at 19:25 | #1

    One of my all-time favorite covers is ‘Save it for Later’ by Harvey Danger. It’s tough to top the original by English Beat, but Harvey Danger monkeys with the phrasing just a tad and brings a whole new emphasis to the song. “I don’t know how I’m meant to act with all you lot/Sometimes I don’t try, I just dot, dot, dot, da da da da…” Not to mention the playful addition of strings.

    Another great one is the cover of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Wild Horses’ by The Flying Burrito Brothers. Gram Parsons’ sorrowful vocal and the countrified mournful pedal steel bring a different emotional element.

    Looking forward to more of these and I’ll keep looking through my music collection for others.

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