Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Angela Hughey is the newest addition to the Cover Me staff, joining us earlier this year. She lives, writes, and performs in Portland, Oregon.
What an awesome time we live in for music. We have hundreds of years of inspiration to draw from and so many choices to make as artists. Create something new or put our own stamp on a piece of music history? If we choose the latter, do we interpret the song verbatim, or do something entirely unexpected? My list of covers that matter to me range from near identical to near unrecognizable remakes of excellent songs. The list kicks off with songs from a few of my favorite movies…
Nico – These Days (Jackson Browne cover)
Cool girl next door: In The Royal Tenenbaums, Margot walks towards Richie in slow motion at a busy bus station. Everything seems to melt away as you listen to the sound of Nico’s voice singing “These Days.” It’s a simple, melancholic version that feels very conversational. Nico’s slightly heavy vocals emphasize the weight of adulthood and the longing for a simpler time and things left undone. Gentle strings fill in the space, suggesting just a bit of hope. Wes Anderson is my favorite director, and this is one of my favorite movie moments, mostly due to the song choice.
Nina Simone – Sinnerman (Traditional cover)
Jazz soul songstress: At the climax of The Thomas Crown Affair, Nina Simone’s stunning cover of “Sinnerman” accompanies Thomas Crown on his cunning execution of the perfect plan. The repetitive piano riff, choppy drums, and crisp guitar strum coupled with Simone’s powerful vocals evoke more powerhouse jazz than African American spiritual (the song’s roots). For a really interesting jaunt through music history, listen to Les Baxter’s recording of the song.
Gary Jules – Mad World (Tears for Fears cover)
Dark lullaby: Sometimes the most simple musical idea can cause the most impact. In Gary Jules’ “Mad World,” a broken chord and a simple cascading riff on the piano set the tone of the song immediately. Jules’ voice is clear and smooth, emphasizing a beautiful melody and incredibly sorrowful lyrics. A deep, thoughtful cello line seems harmless enough, but is actually very foreboding. This song is far too truthful in our current world climate.
Iron and Wine – Such Great Heights (The Postal Service cover)
Indie essential: It’s incredibly awesome when an original and its cover are both exceptional in their own rights. That is the case for me with the Postal Service “Such Great Heights,” covered by Iron and Wine. The usually hypnotic song takes on a lullaby feel in the hands of folksy Iron and Wine. All electronics are stripped and replaced by a simple lilting guitar. Postal Service propels me through the underpasses of a city in a fast car, while Iron and Wine rocks my little boy to sleep.
Sinead O’Connor – Nothing Compares 2 U (Prince cover)
MTV moment: I grew up on MTV. There are a few music videos that were so impactful, I remember them vividly today. Sinead O’ Connor’s “Nothing Compares to You” is one of them. Just listening to the song, you can feel her overwhelming despair. Watch the video, and you might find yourself sobbing over a bowl of cookie dough. She has the most clear, evocative tone to her voice. Add some falling strings and a slow groovy drum beat, and you have the perfect recipe for a 90’s weepy moment.
Elton John – Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (The Beatles cover)
The epic story: I consider Elton John to be one of the master storytellers in song. Songs like “Levon,” “Rocket Man,” and “Daniel” take you on a journey while punching you in the gut with the most beautiful melodies and piano playing you can imagine. “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” is an epic song perfectly suited to Elton’s style. While the original features a tamboura, lead guitar, and organ, Elton’s version is a cacophony of sound. Check out the instrumentation and you’ll get a sense of the symphonic nature of this cover: Vocals, piano, mellotron, harpsichord, electric guitar, bass guitar, sitar, drums, tambourine, tubular bells, gong, maracas. It’s a rock opera in miniature and I love it.
Jose Gonzalez – Heartbeats (The Knife cover)
Indie import: Jose Gonzalez makes the world sound beautiful. His cover of The Knife’s “Heartbeats” features crystal clear vocals and finger picking guitar. It is a huge departure from the electronic original. How does an artist hear something so completely contrary to the original? It’s certainly a gift, and Gonzalez has it.
Cowboy Junkies – Sweet Jane (The Velvet Underground cover)
Song of my youth: That’s what my husband tells our kids when we put on a really good 90’s playlist: “these are the songs of our youth, kids.” Usually found on that list is the Cowboy Junkies, specifically “Sweet Jane.” Unlike the shimmery ’60s Velvet Underground version with Lou Reed’s iconic vocals, the Cowboy Junkies take on the song is much more sweet and simple. Gone are the groovy instrumentals and back up singers. It’s just Margo Timmins’ airy voice, repetitive guitar, and easy drum beat. It all sounds a bit garage band, and that works perfectly for me.
The Killers – Romeo and Juliet (Dire Straits cover)
My favorite band: The Killers. Brandon Flowers covering Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet.” Flowers keeps the cover in the same vein as the original with bright guitar work, sweet fills by the piano and simple rock drums. It’s Flowers’ perfect storytelling tenor voice that suits this love loss song so well. These two versions are so similar, I think it comes down to the singer you prefer.
Phantogram – Weird Fishes/Arpeggi (Radiohead cover)
Cult Cover: Phantogram’s cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is the most recent cover to have a huge impact on me. Sarah Barthel’s hauntingly piercing vocals are reminiscent of Martha Davis, lead singer of The Motels, a favorite old school band of mine. I love the choice Phantogram makes to slow the entire groove down by cutting the drum beat in half. They keep the beautiful arpeggi in tact, however they choose to drop the frantic backing instrumentals. The effect is meditative and I love it.
I have a lot of friends that claim to be fans of The Killers that have never heard “Romeo & Juliet”. I think it is one of Brandon’s & the boys best covers. (And they’ve done their fair share of great covers.) Great job!