Leonard Cohen is one of the few artists whose songs have cover versions not only better known than the originals, but actually better to listen to. Cohen’s somewhat tuneless voice may be partly to blame, but a larger issue is the horrific 80’s production on many of his albums. Fabulous songs are buried beneath layers of synthesizers and drum machines (have you heard the original Hallelujah?). No more was this more apparent than on his 1988 album I’m Your Man. Though it’s filled with classic Cohen songs, listening to the original album is a test of endurance. Luckily plenty of artists have made the effort, finding the gems buried beneath mountains of mud. So throw away your copy of the original (sorry Len) and play this mix instead. I’d imagine Cohen would like it better too.
Kid Harpoon – First We Take Manhattan
The original is a slow-burner, always threatening to explode without ever actually doing it. The Kid fixes that, by stripping it back to an acoustic guitar…then rocking it up to 11 at double-time, creating a sound that’s Gogol Bordello meets The Decemberists.
Aaron Neville – Ain’t No Cure For Love
Neville, of The Neville Brothers fame, reins back his normal vibrato to give a soulful reading that’s half Judy Garland, half honky-tonk.
Don Henley – Everybody Knows
You’d never know what a fabulous song this was from Cohen’s version, where he sounds like he’s falling asleep. Henley makes the song’s merits very clear, starting off quiet and building fast to a number that shows what good production can accomplish, with the great lyrics are front and center.
Elton John – I’m Your Man
Keeping it rocking is Elton’s take on the title track, with plenty of female backing vocals, crunchy guitar and horns. Screw Rocket Man, this sounds like Elton back in his Crocodile Rock days.
Patricia O’Callaghan – Take This Waltz
A would-be opera singer, O’Callaghan channels the winding streets of Paris with piano and accordion backing her multiple-octave soprano. This approach would be over-the-top on many Cohen songs, but works well for this one. The Disney-esq flute solo at the end is a little much though.
Monsieur Camembert – Jazz Police
I wasn’t sure if I’d find a cover of this one, but youtube came through with this Sydney 10-piece doing some rocking jazz-funk, only taking the party down for a strange echoey chorus. Off their double album of live Cohen covers Famous Blue Cheese that I’m on the lookout for, check out three more Cohen tracks at their myspace page.
The Pixies – I Can’t Forget
Even when tackling unlikely source material, The Pixies can’t help sounding like themselves, with weird guitar effects and off-kilter harmonies.
Robert Forster – Tower of Song
Tackling an oft-covered Cohen number, the Go-Betweens frontman gives it a mid-tempo pop gloss that’s miles better than the cover by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, culled from an hour-long jam on the song, that gives you nothing but a migraine.