Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Mike is back in his hometown of Cleveland after many years away. His return was not necessarily the reason the Cavs won the NBA finals, but it hasn’t been ruled out. He’s been writing his essays for Cover Me since 2011, 4 states ago. He still thinks the Counting Crows do a damn fine cover and he loved being part of the crew that got to find the best Bob Dylan covers for Dylan’s 70th birthday.
Ben Folds Five – Twin Falls (Built to Spill cover)
Remember before the internet? Figuring things out about music was HARD! I remember buying the live ‘n’ b-sides Ben Folds Five CD this gem was featured on and reading in the liner notes (remember liner notes!?!?) a very confusing note about this song. Something about being okay with being “a built to spill cover band.” Now, there were two things in that little note I didn’t understand. First, I had no idea there was a band called Built to Spill. Second, I hadn’t processed the term cover or cover band. So basically that sentence was pure gibberish to me and I assumed I was listening to a Ben Folds original. So I guess in some ways this was the start of my love for cover songs. I still prefer this version to the Built to Spill version, with the sparse piano highlighting the painfully nostalgic lyrics better than the off-kilter original. This songs takes love-at-first-sight story and flips it on its head by having it all fall apart within two minutes. Ouch.
Wolf Gang – Pyramid Song (Radiohead cover)
The first song I ever reviewed for Cover Me! I was super excited to have the chance to do something off the beaten path. At the time I was still in the Navy, with a growing family and a love of music but no real outlet. It was incredible to be a part of a site that I was already frequenting for great new music. I had no idea who Wolf Gang was, but as I quickly found out, that’s one of the best things about being part of this team! I listened to this cover and immediately jumped on it. It’s still a great listen: as haunting as the original, now with more piano!
Iron & Wine – Love Vigilantes (Alternate Version) (New Order cover)
I was not familiar with the original, so my initial assumption when I heard this deep cut from the Iron & Wine B-Sides double album was that this was a Sam Beam tune. I was deeply moved by the duality of the heartfelt patriotism and cutting cynicism; shocking to know it wasn’t written about Iraq or Afghanistan. This has all the hallmarks of a great Iron & Wine song: intricate fingerpicking, mellow vocals, melancholy story. But the story of the soldier coming home (alive or as a ghost, depending on how literal your reading of the lyrics is) grabbed my attention a little more than most songs. It still brings a tear to my eyes.
Sun Kil Moon – Convenient Parking (Modest Mouse cover)
I got into Sun Kil Moon when my buddy John gave me a copy of Ghosts of the Great Highway that sat in my car for months until I finally popped it in the CD player one day. When Mark Kozelek followed up that gem with the all-Modest Mouse-covers Tiny Cities, I knew I was in for a treat. At just over 30 minutes the album is the definition of “leave them wanting more.” I only knew one of the songs on the album before listening (as I was only familiar with Modest Mouse’s Good News for People who Love Bad News at the time), but I was blown away by the depth of the lyrics and music anyway. This track, in particular, blew my mind with the guitar work. I mean, listen to that finger picking. It sounded impossible to my ear, but then I was blessed to hear Kozelek play this song live (joined by former Red House Painters bandmate Phil Carney), where I discovered it was not only possible to play, but evidently Carney could do it, too. Still, it’s a sick sounding guitar riff and made all the better by Kozelek’s wistful voice.
Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen cover)
Listen, I loved this song before it was on American Idol, okay? Truth time: I was still late to the game, because I didn’t hear it until my friend John (referenced above) played it in the background of his Best Man speech at my wedding. His speech and the song came together at the perfect moment (“Remember when I moved in you, and the holy dove was moving, too, and every breath we drew was ‘Hallelujah’?”), which was pretty impressive. I ended up getting the CD when I got back home after my wedding, and the rest is history.
Uncle Tupelo – No Depression (The Carter Family cover)
My teenage years were defined by ’90s alternative; a health dose of the original grunge wave and the one that followed immediately after. I can still identify most songs from that era with only one note, even when sometimes it’s just guitar feedback. I loved rock, and I hated country. I’m still not entirely sure how I ended up making the jump to alt-country, but this song by Uncle Tupelo was an early favorite for me that helped me give the lesser known styles of country music their due consideration. Since then, I’ve learned to appreciate roots, alt-country, Americana, folk, and many more, but this one still puts a smile on my face every time.
The Black Keys – Grown So Ugly (Captain Beefheart cover)
Another song I loved without realizing was a cover. I was super excited when the Black Keys blew up, because, in my best hipster impression, I was into them before they were big. This song was one of the most complicated (-sounding) songs I ever learned to play on guitar, and I loved the raw energy of it. Plus the band was local to my hometown. I don’t remember how I figured out that this was a cover of one of my least favorite bands (at the time I had heard Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica and turned it off by track 4), but eventually I had to give credit to the original.
Beck – He’s a Mighty Good Leader (Skip James cover)
Beck blew my mind when I was 14. I was into rock, but Mellow Gold was the weirdest and greatest CD I had heard up to that point. The follow-up, Odelay, was as hip-hop influenced as the debut, so I thought I pretty much had Beck figured out. Well, no one has figured out Beck yet, and I had no idea he had released this folksy album right after Mellow Gold. Turns out Beck can play a pretty sick folk-tune, and I love how innocent this one feels. It’s almost a throwaway, but again, I’m a sucker for this kind of rootsy acoustic guitar and rawness.
The Tallest Man on Earth – Graceland (Paul Simon cover)
As I look over my list I certainly notice a few themes emerging. One is my love of finger picked guitar, or in this case, banjo. The Tallest Man on Earth can just flat out play. And his raspy vocal style takes Simon’s epic story of travel to the cradle of the Civil War to new emotional realms. This version made me fall even more in love with the original, which is already on one of my favorite albums of all time.
The Righteous Brothers – Unchained Melody (Todd Duncan cover)
This is kind of cheating. First of all, no one knows the original, which appeared in the 1955 film Unchained. This is the definitive version, and I’ve already written here about how it’s my favorite cover song. But I think it’s fair to say this could be my favorite song of all time. It’s hard for me to ever settle on a favorite song as there are so many variables that affect that decision (what time of day is it? Who am I with? What’s my mood?) but it’s definitely a contender. The climax is still one of the greatest vocal moments ever put to tape, and it almost didn’t happen, or at least not in the same way (Righteous Bill Medley talks about that here). I could listen to this song on repeat all day; the production, the structure and the execution come together to make a masterpiece.
Fantastic list. Especially the Paul Simon cover!
Thanks Brian! If you like that one I recommend checking out Jens Lekman’s cover of “You Can Call Me Al”.
I love your list. I had no idea your feelings about “Unchained Melody”. Thanks for sharing all.
Thanks Eric! I can’t help but belt out the final moments at the top of my lungs every time I hear it.