Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question: Which artist/band does the best covers? That’s a lot to bite off, no doubt about it, but many mouths make less chewing, and the many mouths at Cover Me are very good at raising their voices. As always, our answers are not the only answers; feel free to leave yours in the comments section…
I have to admit that I’m a somewhat inconsistent writer. I do my best, but there are times when I simply feel like I have no idea what’s going on and don’t know how to contribute anything worthwhile.
This is never the case with Bent Knee. When I see a new song come in from them, I jump on it as quickly as humanly possible. Though their covers only roll in sporadically, at a pace of one or two a year (or fewer), the quality and creativeness they bring to every cover is consistently astonishing. I love their covers to the point where, when I start to type the URL for Cover Me into my browser, the first thing it autocompletes with is their band page. Before the homepage, before my login, before anything; that’s what pops up. They’re a young band made up of young people, but their music feels like the work of professionals – not just seasoned professionals, but ones seasoned at the art of ripping your heart out with the bare hands of their art. They are loud and they are soft and they are sometimes creepy (or, as in this Radiohead cover, “Creep”-y), but every single cover they put out is a piece of primal beauty.
Despite releasing an album entitled “Yo La Tengo Is Murdering The Classics”, the band actually has been known for their variety and quality of cover choices throughout their lengthy career. With nearly three albums chock full of cover songs, their choices range from from eclectic and underground influences (Beat Happening, Daniel Johnston, The Scene Is Now), to classic rock (Neil Young, The Kinks, Cat Stevens, Fleetwood Mac), and everywhere else in between (Love, The Troggs, Flamin’ Groovies).
Lots of bands and artists can reinvent a cover song by performing it in a different genre or style or simply blowing us away with technical mastery, but Yo La Tengo’s success in the realm of cover songs relies on their ability to make their personalities really shine through their adaptations. In the video clip above, they take George McCrae’s upbeat disco song and strip it down to its bare bones. In the process of doing so, they let a basic drum machine handle the tempo and focus on providing the a capella backing vocals for the melody, and a synchronized dance routine for the showmanship.
Many artists play covers, but few have devoted themselves to the genre as seriously as Phish. Phish is a band with a fanatical, dedicated following, and I do not count myself as one of their most zealous fans. I like them, enjoy their music, but I haven’t seen them live, in part because I have sworn off big arena shows. Phish often perform covers, they choose wisely and broadly, and perform expertly. In addition to regularly playing covers during their sets, for a number of years, the band would feature an entire classic album as part of their Halloween “Costume” show. My favorite is their excellent version of Remain in Light from 1996, but that is just a personal choice. Usually, their covers sound close to the original, but occasionally they veer off oddly, for example, performing an a capella version of “Freebird.”
It is no easy feat to compose and perform original music. Choosing how much of yourself to expose emotionally through your music, finding the right group of people who share the same vision as you, not to mention actually having musical talent… it’s a lot of work. Some musicians, aside from having all of the aforementioned, also have another ability – they can heighten another musician’s work to a level that maybe they didn’t even think possible. Sometimes, it is finding a latent power and hurt in a seemingly superficial pop song. Other times, it is taking an already fantastic song and turning it around 180 degrees. Not many have mastered the art of the cover song. Hot Chip, however, has. They have mastered it. So. Hard.
Hot Chip may have an unfair advantage, because Alexis Taylor has the voice of an angel; anything he sings automatically sounds heaven-sent. Their cover choices, however, show the mastery they have over the cover genre. They have done everything from taking Snopp Dogg’s over-the-top “Sensual Seduction” and turning it into a song that is deserving of dozens of candles and rose petals on the sheets. Their cover of Vampire Weekend’s “Cape Town Kwassa Kwassa” is not only gorgeous, but hits us on the metaphysical level with Peter Gabriel singing about himself in the third person. Even the poppier songs they cover, such as Shakira’s “She Wolf,” have such a genuine feel to them, which I think makes them superior in the realm of covers. Anyone could take a silly pop song and make fun of it; it takes some serious skill to not only take it seriously, but make your listeners see it on that level as well. Hot Chip’s rendition of “She Wolf” does that, and it earns a place in my top five favorite covers of all time.
If you are into intricate guitar, introspective lyrics, haunting vocals and music so bittersweet it hurts, then you need to be into Mark Kozelek. His original material, whether solo or with his bands Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon, is incredible. In fact, many of his fans are incensed when he announces a full-length album of covers because the original music he creates is so good. But whether it’s a cover song stuck in the middle of an album of originals (as with the Cars’ “All Mixed Up,” above), a full-length album of Modest Mouse or AC/DC, or organizing a John Denver tribute album, Kozelek’s style shines through. His greatest talent is making each song feel like an original done in a style he excels in. Or, as Blender put it, “A folk-rock anti-Midas, he reduces everything he touches to a molten core of sadness.” Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.
If the Go-Go’s were the Beatles of ’80s girl groups, the Bangles were the Rolling Stones. Bold talk? Think about it – they did wistful more than playful, and hard-driving more than either, especially in their early days – All Over the Place, their 1984 debut, has been doing its best over the years to fall through the cracks, and we can’t let that happen. One thing that has always stood out about the Bangles is their way with a cover; if a song came to them from another band, it came through them notably stronger. The Merry-Go-Round’s “Live,” Katrina and the Waves’ “Going Down to Liverpool,” Jules Shear’s “If She Knew What She Wants,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter” – all of them more vital than the original, once the Bangles had their say. Blasphemy alert: the Bangles even improved on Big Star’s “September Gurls.” It’s less ramshackle, and those two extra “ooohs” in the bridge give the song a lift that makes the instrumental break that follows a true release.
You’re still skeptical, I can tell. Well, check out that performance of “I’m Not Talking.” Written by Mose Allison (the Who opened the Live at Leeds album with his “Young Man Blues”), popularized by the Yardbirds, this was a song they’d been performing since 1984 (lead singer: secret weapon Michael Steele). This version came at a 2000 reunion show, when you’d expect they’d be a good decade past their peak; instead, they blow the doors off the place. Which is only a surprise if you never gave the Bangles the respect they always deserved, especially when it comes to covers.
When we first posted about the Civil Wars a couple years back, we labeled them “Under the Radar.” They’ve since earned themselves a gold album and three Grammys, and their recording budget surely increased since we spotlighted the intimate duo. Yet they’ve consistently resisted temptation to gussy up their covers with string sections or other accoutrement, tackling everything from the obvious (Elliot Smith’s “Between the Bars”) to the left field (Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”) to the wait-what? (Portishead’s “Sour Times”).
From time to time, Cover Me will ask us to write about a truly
impossible challenging subject, which today is “Which artist does the best covers?” Quite the opposite of last time, I didn’t really have anybody in mind at first; when it comes to covers, I’m generally tied to a song instead of a band. I’m a covers snob, the kind who files them into the hierarchical self-important structure in my brain that says, “Man, that version of Warrant’s ‘Cherry Pie’ is fantastic – if only Wilco had done the song like they did in Boise with the euphonium player during the Summerteeth tour in ’99 that was interrupted by someone from the audience throwing up on Jeff Tweedy’s shoes. Gwar did it so much better.” Like I said, I’m a snob.
When I write, I have a detailed way of working, finding meaning from the mp3s hastily thrown in a untitled folder on my computer desktop, the notes scribbled on the back of non-essential documents like credit card bills, and of course the enlightenment achieved from quarterly consultations with my guru in the mountains of Nepal (shout-out to my sherpa Loknath — you rock!). It’s brain-taxing work, combining trivia, history, and music, especially when your maharishi is not available on Skype.
We writers at Cover Me take these virtual and actual jigsaw pieces and arrange them into some kind of Ravensburger 3000 puzzle piece musical triptych. And when I had assembled my last masterpiece (cutting some of the pieces apart with pruning shears and hammering them back down into place with a dead 60 GB iPod), I found I had a few pieces left over, and those pieces were all Glen Hansard. He has a wealth of covers, and his stuff is so good, I realized that I really have to do an In the Spotlight feature on him (you can expect one in the near future).
This is a guy who started out as a busker and worked his way up to winning an Oscar. He does great arrangements: spare, like his cover of REM’s “Hairshirt” with just a mandolin, or with a full band, like he’s done with The Frames or The Swell Season. When he performs those songs, he prefaces them with stories about how they inspired him to become a musician or how they affected his life (of “Hairshirt,” he says, “It was the first song that made me weep”). And he always, always reveres the original artist, with a humbleness that overlooks the gold statuette on his mantel.
That’s the draw. He’s not just a musician. He’s still a fan. And so am I.
If you have a question you’d like us to answer, leave it in the comments, or e-mail it to covermefeature01(at)gmail(dot)com.