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, suggested by staffer Hope Silverman: What’s your favorite cover as performed by a choir?
Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is a very hymnal song, in more than just the title. As such, it is not much of a stretch to transcript it into the choir format. The reason I like the Rock Choir version is the never more Caledonian accent of the combined chorale. I love it when popular song is conducted in other than a Mid-Atlantic twang, especially when the speaking voice is so clearly rooted more solidly on terra firma. UK acts are predominant in this affectation, so when a song comes across with the hues of the singers upbringing, full marks and fair play come to mind. Rock Choir, by now a brand and a franchise, actually started life in Scotland’s central belt, and it warms my cockles to hear their phrasing. Bravo!
“Circle of Life” is a rather odd cultural artifact. It’s a Christian-style hymn about death and renewal, co-written by a British pop star and West End tunesmith (Elton John and Tim Rice) for a Disney movie about Africa (The Lion King), which was based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This cover by Alex Boyé and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir takes this smashup of cultures to even greater heights. The child of Nigerian parents, Boyé was born in London, converted to Mormonism as a teen and was once a singer in a boy band called Awesome. He later emigrated to Utah and is now a U.S. citizen. He performs the song decked out in African-styled clothing standing in front of a sea of middle-aged white ladies all dressed in striking purple dresses. All of this imagery seems to disappear, however, once the music starts. The magisterial bombast of the choir and orchestra combined with Boyd’s powerful voice creates a cover for the ages. It’s enough to bring tears to the eyes of wide-eyed wanderers, kings, and vagabonds alike.
I know, I know, we’re stretching it slightly here, but given that the definition of choir embodies ‘a group performing in public’, my selection gets the nod. And I’m glad it does, as this version of “Sunshine on Leith” by the Proclaimers, sung by over 20,000 Hibernian fans, is absolutely spine-tingling. Having incorporated the song into their chants during a mid-90s takeover bid, the Hibs fans are in full voice after winning the Scottish Cup in the 2015/16 season, breaking a 100-year drought of silverware in the competition. There’s nothing fancy about this cover, but just the passion and joy in the voices of the faithful as they sing their unofficial club anthem just affirms my love for the sport, and for humanity in general.
Screw precision. Restraint be damned. Staid sophistication can go to hell. The best choir performances are the ones where all the participants are into the song. Fully, physically into it. So into it, they occasionally color over the lines and come in a little too early. Or sing a little too emphatically. Or if there’s instrumental accompaniment, render it inaudible by being really, really loud.
None of this is meant to suggest that the Seattle Ladies Choir isn’t ridiculously skillful and accomplished, because they are. It’s just that they are pumped as hell to be singing Stevie Nicks’s “Edge Of Seventeen”, the witchin’, bad bitchin’ national anthem (for me always). Neatness can just take a freakin’ walk.
There are a lot of moving parts in “Edge Of Seventeen” making it an absurdly ambitious choice for a choir cover. It is an endlessly unspooling, windblown emotional word-salad with an unusually complex vocal arrangement and a run-time of nearly six minutes. It makes “Landslide” seem like a nursery rhyme. It is Stevie at her absolute Stevie-est.
This cover exists solely to bring joy to humanity. Not just to Gen-Xers like me, but to everyone (though I admit to experiencing what is likely a disproportionate amount of joy when I watch and hear it). It evokes the sensation of being in a packed car with friends, everyone belting Stevie at the top of their lungs, showing off that they know all the words, and irritating the living hell out of Mom because you are too damn loud (“JUST LIKE THE WHITE WINGED DOVE!”). I would like to be in this choir singing this song with these women who, unlike sour-voiced me, can actually sing (though I’d have to draw the line at wearing a dress’ it would be my Stevie tee or nothing).
Yes, the drums drag a little and sound as if they are being played in a garage. And there’s one vocal cue that’s slightly off. But who cares. This thing brims with genuine joy, the passion is palpable, and I’m glad it exists. Bless you, Seattle nightbirds.
In Bill Hader’s Stefon voice: this cover has everything. A strong choir, a charismatic and talented lead, percussion-matching dance moves, a language change, and of course, a Grammy award-winning flautist. The extreme popularity and distinctiveness of this song’s sound (or not so distinctive, if you are following the latest copyright case) makes the language switch hardly even noticeable as you are grooving along. I admit that I could not stop listening to the original song when it came out (any other Stormzy remix fans out there?), and this cover version is no different. I love the energy; everyone is giving it their all and just having a good time. Others agree. The popularity of this cover propelled the Ndlovu Youth Choir onto America’s Got Talent, where they made it to the finals in 2019. This song also features on Kellerman’s cover-ish album In a Different Light. (I am particularly intrigued by another cover on the album: a rendition of Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings”.)
When John Prine wrote “I am an old woman,” the opening line to “Angel from Montgomery,” he was in his mid-20s. (and a man….) Bonnie Raitt was about the same age when her iconic cover came out; Susan Tedeschi was a couple years older when her cover was released. However, when Helen Boston, the soloist in Young@Heart Chorus’ version, sang those words, she was in her early 80s, and her timeworn voice lends the song a truth, gravity, and authenticity that younger singers, no matter how talented, cannot match (although Raitt, now 72, recently recorded a cover of the song which is more age-appropriate).
Young@Heart Chorus, founded at an elderly housing project in Northampton, MA in 1982, is filled with seniors, and what makes them noteworthy is that a significant portion of their repertoire consists of rock music, even punk. The self-titled 2006 documentary about the group is wonderful, as is this cover. This version of the song was featured in a “Five Good Covers” piece that I wrote about the song in 2016, and one reader commented that it brought her to tears. I’m guessing that she was not the only reader with that reaction.
Most times that choreography is involved in choral work, it’s camp – think of the Sister Act nuns shaking their heads back and forth to emphasize that there’s not a man today who could take them away from “My God,” or BYU doing “Thriller.” What I especially like about the choreography by Angel City Choral when they’re doing “Africa” is that it doesn’t go for the little chuckle; rather, it’s used to set an aural mood. With simple body percussion, they put you in the middle of a storm on the veldt, and by the time they get to the song’s lyrics, the listener has been transported. It’s truly thrilling, sure as Kilimanjaro rises like… oh, you know the words.
Musicians have long delighted in using instruments to imitate the human voice. Here we are going the other way, with 19 human voices conjuring up the instrumental richness of Pink Floyd. The vocalists don’t get to sing actual words until five-and-a-half minutes in. The way Knauskoret reinterprets the lengthy multi-part instrumental section ends up sounding a bit like Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (eerie Eastern European harmonic intervals) or something from an Elven kingdom in Middle Earth. In a word: unearthly. But things gets well-grounded when it comes time for that: when the song shifts, the singers use doo-wop techniques (or something like them) to deliver the root notes and rhythms that drive the song home.
Another choir might have dropped all the instrumental stuff, and focused only on the heart of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”–that anthemic refrain, and those verses with their built-in drama. The refrain does lend itself beautifully to full-throated voices in full cry, and it is a glorious moment when the choir finally gets to belt it out. Shine on you crazy diamond! I bet that not one person in the audience sang along with the climactic line—that’s how perfectly the choir delivers it. One more voice added on could only detract, make it less than.
Anonymous Choir’s Leonard Cohen covers album came out in 2015, which means they just missed Cohen’s most obvious latter-day choral song: 2016’s “You Want It Darker” (for a taste of how that sounds sung by a killer choir, witness First Aid Kit’s live version). Often, Cohen’s songs make an odd fit for a choir. On the positive side, they’re suffused with spirituality, gospel in spirit if not sound. On the other, they’re subtle, likely to be overwhelmed by dozens of voices belting them to the rafters. So Anonymous Choir find a middle ground, spotlighting a lead singer – Nona Invie, not so anonymous – with fourteen female voices backing her up. Closing track “Who By Fire” is the one of most overt choir-y of the bunch, but the whole album is worth checking out, as are their similar tributes to Stax Records and Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush.
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