In 1999, country singer Garth Brooks ditched his signature twang and had an unlikely top five pop hit with the R&B song “Lost in You.” Had it just been an instance of a country singer recording a crossover hit, then we probably would not think much of actor-writer-producer Donald Glover singing the song as his musical alter ego Childish Gambino during an appearance on Australian radio. But since Brooks sang the tune as his own alter ego, Chris Gaines, on an album considered his biggest commercial and critical disappointment, the story may reveal a deeper meaning behind Gambino’s cover.
Talking Heads only ever recorded one cover, and when I talked to David Byrne about it for my book, he seemed to have mixed feelings on the subject. “There’s always a little bit of resistance to recording a cover like that because it’s kind of a crowd pleaser,” he told me. “I’d seen it happen before, where radio DJs who pick what they’re going to play will often pick a cover song… So then a band gets known for covering somebody else’s song as opposed to writing their own material. They have to go through a struggle for years to get identified with their own songs.”
Talking Heads recorded “Take Me to the River,” it became their biggest hit up to that point, and Byrne said: That’s it. No more covers. The band never followed it up with a second.
He’s relaxed the rules a bit more in his solo career, most recently covering Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” on tour (he says he’s bringing the cover to Broadway, too). And clearly he’s been listening to covers. For his DB Radio show on his website, he just compiled a wonderfully eclectic mix of his favorite covers. The theme, he says, is artists doing the unexpected, from Sonic Youth covering The Carpenters to Miley Cyrus covering Nine Inch Nails. And when the song choice itself may not be surprising – Patti Smith covering the Rolling Stones, say – the arrangements are. Here’s what he wrote on his website:
As sales of recorded music have plummeted – and streaming royalties failed to make up the difference – many professional musicians’ income streams come increasingly from so-called “syncs”: their music being licensed to commercials, movies, TV shows, etc. One popular sub-genre in the sync world is cover songs, often hit pop songs made slow and/or spooky for a trailer or show (see The New Yorker‘s recent article on the phenomenon). We’ve already posted two cover-song syncs just this week: Sharon Van Etten covering “Suspicious Minds” for a coconut water ad and the HBO show Big Little Lies licensing an old Fleetwood Mac cover by POP ETC.
Life experience can transform a song. While Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails went deep into the emotional hell pit on “Hurt” in 1994, Johnny Cash’s 2002 cover took it even further, transforming the already heartbreaking into the emotionally devastating.
Like Cash, Tanya Tucker is a country legend. She was only 13 years old when she had her first hit record, 1972’s anthem “Delta Dawn.” And in the tradition of those “blessed” with huge success at a young age, she embarked in earnest on her mission to be country music’s wildest child. A female outlaw in the mold of Waylon and Willie, she became as famous for her partying, drinking, drug-taking, and relationship choices as she was for her music (check out her excellent, revealing autobiography Nickel Dreams for all the painful details).
The first few seconds of singer and composer Jacob Collier’s cover of “Moon River” will leave listeners lost in a sea of harmonies. He enlisted over 140 collaborators in all, including Chris Martin, David Crosby, Charlie Puth, Ty Dolla $ign, and Hans Zimmer. If that wasn’t enough, Collier added over 5,000 (!) of his own vocal tracks.
The beautiful “oohs” of each collaborator blend perfectly together to create something truly special. Each second adds another harmony making each listen to the song different than the last depending on which harmony you follow. Normally this much harmony would be overwhelming, but Collier manages its perfectly truly showing off his musical prowess. The entirety of the song is a capella, but upon first listen it feels like a full orchestra is performing.
If you are a longtime listener of Cover Me with a photographic memory, you may recall our feature on acclaimed band The Morning Benders and their outrageously sweet Bedroom Covers Collection from back in 2011. The band have since changed their name to POP ETC, but their rapturous love for classic pop remains intact.
Their latest release, the career-spanning Covers Collection 2007-2019 features a staggering 21 songs (including a few of the old Bedroom Covers) and covers tracks from a wide range of artists including The Ronettes, The Strokes and Fleetwood Mac. The band’s main man Chris Chu says: “Ever since I started making music, I’ve loved covering songs. Aside from the sheer joy of it, it was a way for for me to study songwriting and practice my home recording skills. Listening back to them now, I’m reminded of just how enjoyable it is to cover a great song, how much these songs mean to me, and how much I’ve learned from these amazing songwriters and bands.”