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.
Guns N’ Roses’s “November Rain” is a huge song. Its size doesn’t just come from its length (it’s almost nine minutes long, making it the longest single ever in the Billboard Top 10). It’s not its long gestational period, either (Tracii Guns says that Axl Rose already had a working version of it in 1983, back when he was still with the L.A. Guns). Nor is it only the cryptic video (Axl lost somebody, for sure, but otherwise who knows was was going on exactly?). “November Rain” is an epic because in addition to all these elements, it takes the listener on a journey, and it’s one we’ve all been on before.
When the song begins, we’re dropped into a relationship on the edge. It’s been on-again, off-again, and both parties are unsure of where they stand. Slash’s first two solos during this part of the song soar, making you feel like everything is going to work out for these two. The last verse reinforces this feeling. When Axl sings “Never mind the darkness, we still can find a way. And nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain”, we feel like this couple has turned the corner and is on the right path.
And then comes the apocalyptic coda. Instead of tenderness, we get intensity. Between the thunder of the piano and the snarl of the third guitar solo, it’s clear that we ended up getting two songs for the price of one. This is the story of a relationship on the rocks, surviving through its ups and downs; and then the bloody aftermath, when nothing is left but loneliness and the need to rage.
Because of all the territory the original spans, any cover of “November Rain” has fertile ground for interpretation. An artist could focus on any part of the myriad emotions crammed into the original and explore further. Here are three covers that did a particularly good job with this power ballad.
Korallreven’s is good.
Amos Lee‘s is better.
Sandi Thom’s is the best.
Kollreven’s take on “November Rain” is diametrically opposed to the original. GNR’s recording is full of ups and downs, but throughout it all is the band. The instrumentation lends an insistency to the song that’s undeniable. Kollreven, on the other hand, runs the song through as many electronic layers as they can cram in. It still works. The trance-like feeling of the synthesizers emphasizes the dreamlike state of the original, proving that even opposites can meet in the middle and find the same effect.
Sometimes the best thing you can do is stay close to the original. Amos Lee brings some of the same operatic presentation that Axl and the boys gave us in the Use Your Illusion I recording, and it serves him well. He even has strings in the background. He does have a momentary blunder early in the performance, but it only serves to enhance the emotion of the song. And “November Rain” is nothing without emotion. Amos’s voice isn’t the force of nature that Axl’s is, but it delivers feeling in spades. His band, on the other hand, gives their best GNR impression. The guitar work is particularly impressive, and the when they hit the end of the song and it really starts crunching, the crowd goes wild. It’s a powerful thing, and shows why covers work so well. An earnest cover of a powerful song is a great experience, for both the band and the crowd watching it.
And then came something special. Sandi Thom’s cover of “November Rain” takes us in an entirely new direction. She brings a very simple instrumentation to the song, with just an acoustic guitar and organ, and leaves out the solos that Slash made so famous. The straightforwardness of the approach highlights the lyrics, and Thom brings those with a force that can’t be ignored. Her voice sounds like it’s on the edge of cracking at points, but she maintains control, making that power serve the emotional core of the song. The organ work adds to the feeling, making you feel like you’re caught in the wind of that cold rain, suffering right there with Sandi while she pours her heart out. By the end of the song, it’s clear that she’s found a place of hope in the middle of it all. The lack of the bombastic ending that Guns N’ Roses used (and Amos Lee cribs) only adds to that sense of hope. Sandi’s arrangement doesn’t have that sea change at the end, just an uplift in her voice that lets us know that sometimes, things can work out.
You can find Guns N’ Roses on Amazon, and on their website here.