Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question: What’s a favorite a cappella cover?
In the early days of file sharing, you’d search through Napster or Kazaa or LimeWire, not just for your favourite songs and bands, but for rarities, collaborations and live performances. Inevitably you’d come across some seemingly crazy one-off super group performance of a famous song. Such as a live performance of “Stairway to Heaven” by Zeppelin, featuring Hendrix (and probably Clapton or Beck) at Woodstock. Wait, was Zeppelin even at Woodstock? (They were not.)
You’d download the song and be disappointed to discover that it was just the studio recording of “Stairway” with no Hendrix guest appearance or crow noise. At least the Frank Zappa live cover of “Stairway” was a real recording (even if there weren’t any famous guest stars on that one either).
I don’t know when I decided to start seeking out weird covers of my favorite classic rock songs, but one day this search lead me to Phish’s cover of “Freebird,” but it did. Back then, I didn’t know much about the a cappella cover phenomenon. I associated the style with barbershop, specifically as parodied in the famous Simpsons episode “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet.” I didn’t know that people covered famous songs a cappella.
I didn’t know much about Phish either. I knew they were the jam band. I knew their live shows were supposed to be much better than their albums. And I had never heard a single note.
But from the opening reference to the famous Van Zant question on Skynyrd’s live performance (“What song is it you wanna hear?”) I was transfixed. I had never heard a band do anything like this. I didn’t care about the poor recording quality or the musical quality of the performance, just the guts of guys singing condensed guitar solos on stage in front of thousands of people.
It opened me up to a whole new musical world and briefly lead me to be obsessed with a cappella covers of pop music, resulting in buying albums like Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out.
Nothing gets a party started like “Peace up, A-town down!” followed by “Yeah!”’s uber-distinctive club beat. Is it even a wedding reception or high school dance if this song doesn’t play? This a cappella group from the University of Oregon recreates that beat with creative vocals and brings the same energy to the concert hall. A cappella hip-hop/rap songs can get corny pretty quickly, but this one holds up. There’s plenty of spunk (they remind us that they “know how to party” a la “California Love”), and Divisi even takes on and re-mixes the Ludacris and Lil Jon rap part (and adds a little sample of Lil Jon’s “Get Low” for good measure). Throughout there is certainly evidence of vocal chops, like the tasteful runs in select “yeah”s, beyond just “repping the ladies who got the flow.”
The first thing that jumped into my head when I got the prompt was to write about this cover of Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” by the Smith College Smithereens, the fourth oldest women’s a cappella group in the country (not the more recently formed and excellent rock band of the same name). The soloist on this version is my daughter, Hannah Swibold Becker, Smith ’15 (and, as I’ve recently discovered, the college classmate of our own Sara Stoudt, although they don’t know each other). And because I’m a good dad, I made sure that Hannah approved my writing about it.
I was never a big fan of college a cappella singing—I went to a college with many such groups, and I made it through 4 years there basically avoiding it, except when the singers blocked an archway I needed to get through (I apologize now to my friends who were in any of the singing groups that I callously ignored—I think I have grown a little in the past 40 or so years). But when Hannah joined the ‘Reens, I got to see them perform many times, and enjoyed it, because they were good, and it was my daughter up there. Even when it conflicted with the Super Bowl.
“Chicago” was Hannah’s only full solo with the group—her strengths were singing harmony and in lower registers, and that ability is, she believes, why she got the lead on this song. It seemed like a strange song for an a cappella group to tackle, but it worked out really well, I think. The arrangement was by Hannah’s classmate, Julia Nimchuk, who is also quite talented (she’s third from the left). This video is from Hannah’s first year, and she sang it through her senior year. As she went along, she added more and more “acting” to her performance, making it even more fun. These days, Hannah is a standup comedian in Barcelona (mostly in English), although she occasionally sings. FWIW, also in the group, third from the right, is Alice Howe, an emerging folk singer-songwriter who has recorded a handful of nice covers, including this version of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me.”
In 1986, Kathleen Turner rode the baby boomer nostalgia wave playing the title character in the Francis Ford Coppola film Peggy Sue Got Married. While attending her high school reunion, Peggy Sue passes out and wakes up in the body of her teenage-self in 1960, just before she got pregnant. Her would-be baby daddy is Nicolas Cage, a pompadour-wearing high schooler who idolizes the teen idol Fabian. At one point in the film, Cage and his doo-wop group, the Definitions, perform live at a basement party. The quartet, which also includes a young Jim Carrey, sings an a cappella version of Dion and the Belmonts’ “I Wonder Why.” It’s a performance meant to come across as slightly hokey, with the guys struggling to hit the high notes and dancing awkwardly on stage. But it’s still somehow endearing. When Cage winks his eye at Peggy Sue from the stage, she realizes why she was attracted to him in the first place, even if her life did not turn out quite the way she imagined. Now that’s a good cover song!
Perpetuum Jazzile is an award-winning acappella group from the Republic of Slovenia, a European country adjacent to Austria, Hungary and Croatia. They’re a large group, numbering from 30 and 40 (give or take a few) at any given time, always including all genders. They first recorded “Africa” in 2006, with a version that caught the attention of Toto keyboardist David Paich, the song’s co-writer. That attention turned into an invitation to perform the song with Toto in Italy during 2011, with a world tour to follow. The version above is from 2008, and is a favorite due to the jungle rainstorm simulation at the beginning, featuring absolutely amazing thunder claps.
(Honorable mention for this song goes to the version by Jared Halley, notable for his doing all of the parts. Give it a listen as well!)
The Housemartins’ white-bread doo-wop version of the Isley-Jasper-Isley 1985 hit “Caravan of Love,” quickly turned around in 1986, seems like an odd take, and that’s why it works. Not released on an album; I found a 7″ single in a sad St. Pete thrift shop in the early ’90s. I was oblivious to its previous rise up the UK charts to #1. Here’s my chance to end someone else’s obliviosity.
Did you ever buy an album just because the band’s name, Cowboy Junkies, lured you in with its promise of dangerous attitude, and because they do covers of Hank Williams and Lou Reed? Did you then wonder, when you put on the first track and heard a silky-smooth voice sing a coal mining dirge unaccompanied, if you’d wasted your money? You weren’t alone. And did you furthermore assume that “Mining for Gold” was an old traditional lament, probably from pre-war Appalachia or earlier? Guess again. Its composer, James Gordon, had this to say about it:
“[The song is m]y first ‘original historical song.’… I based it on a traditional British Columbia ballad called ‘Taku Miners,’ collected by Phil Thomas in his great book Songs of the Pacific Northwest. Tamerack recorded it in 1983 on our Pleasant Gale album…. When Jeff Bird left the band in 1988, he joined the Cowboy Junkies, and he brought this song with him. […] I once heard the song performed live in Newfoundland by some traditional singers who thought I was mad when I came up and introduced myself as its author. Some years later the song became, oddly enough, the soundtrack for a NIKE running shoe TV commercial.”
After sifting through tons of YouTube videos searching for the perfect a cappella cover that’s not a full-on theatre troupe smiling through a medley of punk songs (and there are a lot), I finally landed on Fish. Fish creates a lot of videos, and many of them are backing tracks he’s created for guitarists learning Nirvana songs (he records the drums and bass as a reference). Fortunately, he has one a cappella song, and it’s him doing Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” At first glance you may think it’s a young Dave Grohl stepping away from the drums, but no, that’s Fish! With one track dedicated to the bass and the other to guitar, a lot of badabadabams nail the essence of “In Bloom” to a T. Fish brings Kurt Cobain’s voice to life (and he’s definitely practiced) and with the exception of a few flubbed lyrics, he records the perfect a cappella cover of this grunge classic. He uses an effect on his voice for the guitar solo (and maybe some reverb throughout), but we can forgive him for that (plus it sounds really cool). Bonus points for the fun faces and animal sounds during the second post chorus.
So the truth is that I’m not super into a cappella in general. I had a friend in high school who was constantly sharing different college groups with me (ah, the days of Napster and other file sharing sites), but while I could appreciate the skill, it wasn’t something I would listen to in general. There are plenty of all-vocal works that I enjoy, though; Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Bjork’s Medulla album come to mind. For me to really enjoy an a cappella cover, I want to hear something different. And Sonos brings that on this cover of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.”
First of all, they have really changed the feel of the song. The original is a hop out of your seat, dance around the room jam, but Sonos has brought out the darkness hidden in these lyrics. In many ways this is a lament, and even though Sonos manage to keep the song upbeat, you can still hear the desperation. The next thing I love here is the use of technology to enhance the vocals. There are a lot of effects, with echoes, double tracking and octave pedals, and I think it stretches the genre into new territories. Finally, I think the harmonies and arrangement are extremely creative. Sonos has a full album of covers where they got very creative with the arrangements; I think this is the best example but I really had a hard time choosing. Whether you are into a cappella or not, give this one a chance and then check out the rest of Sonos’s album SONOSings if you want to hear more.
As everybody knows, songs about career criminals, especially if first snarled out by punk giants the Clash, always translate best into a pastoral, choral whimsy, this being the proof. To me, it was always the best secret about Chumbawamba: underneath the dog on string anarchy chaos, shouty music from the squats, they had a front line of voices that could sweeten the sourest apple. This had always part of their contrarian mix, but by this stage of their career they had just about halved in numbers, shedding the agit-prop frontline, all marching about and megaphones, and the drummer, leaving little more than four voices and a trumpet. Here no need even of that, just voices, that’s all, to quote another later song. Like a silken cosh, the melody drifts out in a perfect harmony, at such total odds with the lyrical content as to be the clear reason they totally got away with it, stealing the song forever.
When it comes to pop/rock harmonies, the Beach Boys outshine all competition. Brian Wilson’s been called a genius so often, sometimes we forget that part of the reason for that were the vocal arrangements he came up with for the other Boys to sing.
Those two sentences are accepted as absolute fact. But it’s one thing to know this, and quite another to hear it, and feel it. Top 40 listeners got the chance to do that when “Sloop John B” was released as the lead single for Pet Sounds in 1966. All the instruments dropped out for a few precious seconds, and the Boys held forth, unadorned and beautiful.
Now imagine hearing the whole song that way. Well, we don’t have to imagine, thanks to The Pet Sounds Sessions. The 1997 box set includes vocals-only tracks for all the non-instrumental songs (“nothing less than spiritual in their emotive wallop” – Q). Turns out that without all those wonderful musical instruments getting in the way, “Sloop John B” is somehow even more beautiful, even as the sadness in the song’s lyrics shines through (if sadness can be said to shine, it certainly does here).
This is a track I come back to regularly when I need a lift. For all the pain in the Beach Boys’ story, for all the broke-up feelings, nothing hits my sweet spot quite like this.
Like all-nighters and improv troupes, a cappella is one of those quintessentially college experiences that feels slightly embarrassing in retrospect. To be clear, I don’t mean a cappella in its broader meaning of voices without instruments; there are a million legit, grown-up varieties that are amazing at any age (many are elsewhere in this post). I mean a cappella of the extremely collegiate variety. If you went to a college with an a cappella scene, you know what I mean, and if you didn’t, there is nothing I could possibly say that would make you understand why this was a “thing.” I debated picking something more legitimate, something that would translate better to someone who wasn’t there, but that wouldn’t be my honest answer to the question.
My honest answer, the one a cappella cover I have loved more than any other, is the showstopping closer one of my college’s a cappella groups, the Dartmouth Aires, performed at every show: “Up the Ladder to the Roof” (a Supremes song, but the Aires’ version took its cues from The Nylons). The video above doesn’t capture why it was great. The album recording doesn’t capture it. My writing won’t capture it either. Nothing captures it except being in the room when they sang it as a 19-year-old. They were the class clowns of the a cappella scene – wearing zany outfits, chugging beers mid-song – and, as a dorky undergraduate, I loved them.
The year after I graduated, the Aires appeared on the NBC show The Sing-Off. I didn’t watch; even only a few months out of college, my interest in a cappella had faded. They came up in second to Pentatonix. Pentatonix went on to be easily the biggest a cappella group in decades, with not one but two albums that topped the chart (and not like some obscure a cappella chart, either – they topped the chart). The Aires, meanwhile, went back to school. Nine years later, several new generations of Aires have come and gone. The Aires appearing on a major network TV show in 2011 must sound like a million years ago to the current crop, who would have been in elementary school then. But the group, whoever is in it, still performs “Up the Ladder to the Roof.” I’m sure, whenever college resumes, the kids will still go nuts for it too.
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