Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
Kings are not born. They are made by artificial hallucination. – George Bernard Shaw
The first time I heard Kings of Leon, I wondered if I hadn’t dreamed them into being. A quartet of charming Southern gentlemen playing the kind of bluesy rock that I really needed to help me get through the aha shake and heartbreak of my early twenties? It couldn’t possibly be real.
Luckily for the rest of humanity, this was so much more than an artificial fever dream trapped in my pop-culture-addled mind. In the decade since I discovered them, I’ve done some roaming around, but no one fills the places I can’t reach like Kings of Leon.
Born in the buckle of the Bible Belt in the same musically fertile land that gave the world Elvis Presley, these kings born of Leon (the band is named after Followills’ grandfather) are tangible and real and very much alive with warm flesh, thumping red blood and bone-shaking drumbeats twined around howling guitars and naked vocals.
Despite being huge in Europe, Kings of Leon didn’t really make a splash in United States until the 2008 release of Only By The Night. The debut single “Sex on Fire” ignited the charts, and the album’s second single “Use Somebody” became an instant classic, going platinum and reaching number one on the Billboard Top 40 charts.
“Use Somebody” takes no prisoners and flings the listener into a tempest-tossed ocean of sound from the first note. Lead singer Caleb Followill’s voice is the life preserver you desperately cling to, but the music sounds so good that if you were to be swallowed by the undertow, it might not be so bad.
The maelstrom abates momentarily as Followill murmurs, “I’m ready… I’m ready…,” and then the eye of the storm passes and the music whips back as a fierce solo consumes the song. Followill brings it back to shore with the final lines – a repeated refrain echoing the first lines: “I’ve been roaming around always looking down at all I see.” He might have found a safe port and he’s ready, he’s ready, he’s ready… but he’s still searching.
The track’s loud/soft dynamics coupled with Followill’s vulnerable lyrics about hoping to be noticed made it a popular cover choice, and everyone from Kelly Clarkson to Belgian women’s choir Scala and Kolacny took a crack at it.
Picking a mere three out of a litany of contenders was a Sisyphean task, as every track I listened to had some tiny nuance that I loved, but here are the ones that stood out amidst all contenders, three Kings covers that follow yonder star with their own royal beauty bright.
Matisyahu’s cover is good.
Trey Songz’s cover is better.
And Lauren Jansen’s cover is best.
The original is wind-whipped ocean of sound and this cover by reggae rapper Matisyahu is a warm rock pool on a still day. Accompanied only by the sparse sound of an acoustic guitar, Matisyahu’s cover takes on a solemn tone and sounds like supplication. The beat boxing at the very end of the track replaces Followill’s assertions of readiness and lift the piece from solemnity and give the cover a much-needed funky finish.
(Skip to 01:25 for the start of the song)
Before hearing the track – “Oh my God. Trey Songz does a cover? The Bottoms Up guy?” and then, I rolled my eyes so far back in my head, I think I suffered a mild retinal tear.
After hearing the track – “I…I think I’m in love with Trey Songz…? Also, possibly pregnant…?”
Lesson learned? Be not such a judgmental and derisive jerk.
Songz is also known as Mr. Steal Yo’ Girl and in this lush and string-laden cover, it’s easy to see how he earned that moniker. Songz is not only capable of stealing yo’ girl but so smooth, that you’d probably thank him for the privilege.
I KNOW the song is by Kings of Leon – I just spilled a good 400 words raving about them, for God’s sake – and yet when Songz says, “I wrote this just for you” – damned if I don’t believe the cheeky bastard. The power of strings in a rock song is indeed strong.
Strings are strong, but the lure of a stripped down piano ballad is stronger. There’s a raw honesty to the piano. You can’t hide behind bombast. All you can do is sit down at the keys and bleed. And that’s what Dutch-American musician Lauren Jansen does. Followill might be vulnerable, but Jansen wears her heart on her sleeve, and oh, how it bleeds.
There’s a haunted loneliness and wide-eyed melancholy to Jansen’s cover, and when she sings about “someone like you and all you know and how you speak,” it’s almost as if she’s singing to an actual person, beseeching them to catch a mere glimpse of her.
Jansen doesn’t try to rework the song in the style of her preferred genre as Matisyahu and Trey Songz do in their covers. She capitulates, lets the music wash over her, rides the wave and means every note.