Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
“The Scientist” is the one song that even the most ardent Coldplay phobes can grudgingly admit to, if not actually liking, agreeing that it’s a good song, with nine out of ten subconsciously singing along with it, sotto voce, should it ever appear of the radio. Which it does really quite often. Despite the near impossibility of recreating Chris Martin’s falsetto, you just can’t stop yourself from trying, hating yourself as you then have to.
No, that’s unfair, but the band do present an easy target, being so damn successful and so damn ubiquitous. In the time old time old of an unreconstructed music snob, I like to prefer their old stuff, always finding a tall poppy anathema to my enjoyment. From their second album, 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head, “The Scientist” is the insanely catchy standout ballad in a record chock-full of earworm melodies. Catnip both to the lovelorn and those in love, it has become a favorite of slow dancers, although quite who or what the scientist was or is remains enigmatic. He sounds genuinely sorry enough.
Far and away the most covered of all the songs by this band, most versions of “The Scientist” suffer from being over-emoting recreations that make you weep in other ways than the authors intended. And, given the fairly tight construct of the song, there are few ways of tackling it in other styles than sad. Unsurprisingly there is a plethora of reedy, needy female renditions, choking back their tears over weedy piano or guitar arrangements. Strangely, few men tackle it, perhaps for fear of showing their feminine side.
Corinne Bailey Rae – The Scientist (Coldplay cover)
Muting the piano a little, less of the frantic bashing of Martin’s urgent entreaty, Corinne Bailey Rae gives “The Scientist” a makeunder that portrays a quieter desperation, her voice having almost given up the ghost. I’m usually no great fan of bolted-on strings for an added emotional tug, but here they are perfect. Rae has, of course, a track record of angst, both in real life and on record, and she has proven herself an adept cover artist, appearing on tributes to as varied as Fats Domino and Tom Waits, as well as being called upon by no less than Herbie Hancock for his sublime Joni Letters. If you have heard this version, there is a guilty chance you have seen the film Fifty Shades Darker, the sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey, for which this had been commissioned. (Yes, yes, but of course you haven’t…..)
Scary Pockets feat.Kenton Chen – The Scientist (Coldplay cover)
Well, this is certainly different, an efficient and effective smooth funk production, with the chops of Steely Dan and the emotion of… well, not of Steely Dan, clearly, but maybe of some cool, languid soulboy, a bastard son of Stevie Wonder and Amy Winehouse. Chen is one of the myriad voices of Postmodern Jukebox, one who has a degree in jazz to boot. Scary Pockets are the duo of Ryan Lerman and Jack Conte, together with any slick player to hand at the moment. The link between the band and the singer is Ben Folds, Lerman having been a bassist for Folds, Chen a more recent second on the bill to Folds. Almost a different song, Chen rails in enough of the song to have you recognize it, without too much to heave you skip it.
Bill Kwan – The Scientist (Coldplay cover)
Another dip into jazz waters, if this time a much smoother immersion, that being what you want to do in the lushly warm vocals of Kwan. Kwan is a dermatologist by day, with an evening career in music, specializing in reinterpreting the standards, and a lot more else, of recent years. His honeyed tones are a delight here, coming from 2015’s Poison and Wine, where he covers artists as diverse as Gillian Welch and Gotye. More recently he has devoted a whole album to the music of Sade. Too much smooth on smooth, you might say about this selection, but his voice is just so inviting as to work wonders with the material. I hadn’t caught him before, but suspect I will be finding a way to bring him back to these pages before too long.
Aimee Mann – The Scientist (
If someone with as an acute ear for melody as Aimee Mann covers your song, you certainly know you have crafted a good ‘un. True, in this live version, Mann does little with “The Scientist,” beyond her voice, that itself enough to wreak a little more angst into a song that otherwise smacks more of self-pity. This time you feel for her, rather than tell Chris Martin to stop sniveling and pull himself together. (Am I going to regret all this sniping?) Mind you, Mann can sing anything and have me in rapture, it being unusual for her to stoop to a cover, although secondhandsongs.com tells me she has done more than I thought. This song is available as part of the special edition of Lost In Space.
Willie Nelson – The Scientist (Coldplay cover)
Did I say Aimee Mann brought in a little more wrack and ruin? Not a patch on the vastness of the vista of prairie lonesomeness the master brings to his rendition.
What can be said about Willie Nelson that hasn’t already? At 88 he is a a survivor, an icon, and a living legend. And one of the reasons I ever started taking an interest in cover versions. From his 2012 album Heroes, “The Scientist” was originally commissioned for a short film about sustainable farming, a cause dear to his heart, and recorded when he was a mere stripling of 78, in 2011. From the opening steel and guitar, with Mickey Raphael’s harmonica a distant buzzard, Willie ramps up the weepy quotient to max, a choir moaning lowly behind him. A nothing short of miraculous reworking, giving a whole new respect for the original construct.