Monday, 23 March 2009

Covering up

Loads of songs which top the charts are cover versions, either popular, easily recognisable previous hits or flops dredged from the murk-laden depths of obscurity. Who needs new material when you can flog a dead horse and still make a killing? Even YouTube, that zeitgeist bastion of collective consciousness is filled with video upon video of idiots cracking out abysmal bedroom cover versions of their favourite songs. That said, YouTube is filled with video upon video of idiots doing a lot of things, so maybe it’s not the best of benchmarks.

There are some brilliant covers out there – Badly Drawn Boy’s version of ‘Come On Eileen’, for instance, never fails to scrawl a smile across my face. There are some downright shocking ones, too – Avril Lavigne wailing her way through ‘The Scientist’, anyone? But what are the factors that mark the good from the bad?

A few weeks ago, I bought a copy of NME for the free compilation CD of Cure songs it proffered. The first track on said CD featured Robert Smith talking about cover versions in general; maybe it was this that got me thinking. He theorised that there are two ways to tackle a cover version: faithfully attempting to reproduce the original version, and completely reassembling it with a whole new spin.

I’ve always found the idea of a completely faithful cover version to be a double-edged sword. A decent cover version can urge you to seek out the original version of a song; it can get you into artists you’d never previously considered (on this note, I feel I ought to – embarrassing as it is – confess that it was My Ruin covering ‘Do You Love Me?’ which drove me towards Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; yes, they may actually have changed my life). However, if a song is good enough to warrant being covered (because, let’s face it, nobody really bothers covering the shit songs; they’re too uninspiring), what’s to say that a straight run-through of it will be any improvement? It probably won’t be.

It’s like James Blunt covering ‘Where is My Mind?’. I’ve posted the video below, because I feel that if such an atrocity has been inflicted upon my poor, undeserving ears, I at least deserve the comfort of knowing that everyone else has been through the same experience.

It doesn’t differ too dramatically from the original, does it? Obviously in terms of quality it does, but in form it’s really not such a great distance apart. ‘Where is My Mind?’ does sound mellow; however, when taken in context with the rest of the Pixies’ material, this low-key, semi-acoustic track sounds sinister. It’s an “oh shit, I’m actually scaring myself here” type of quietness, not a “let’s repackage this with some nasal vocals and sell it to middle-aged housewives” type of quietness. And hence Blunt falls flat.

If you’re really that inspired by a band’s sound, surely it’s more effective to use them as an influence? Don’t make the assumption that you can take them on on their own terms and win. It’s a bloody dangerous game, and one that people usually seem to lose (Elvis Costello’s sublime cover of ‘She’, aside).

No, a good cover version should function almost as a remix, as a reimagining. Doing something new with a classic is far more admirable than simply echoing the track back verbatim. Create something new, please: you practically owe it to everyone listening. It’s by far more refreshing to look up the original version of a song and to hear something completely different from what you were expecting. I mean, upon hearing Gary Jules’s teary, piano-led run-through of ‘Mad World’, would your mind really have skipped to a slab of melancholic ‘80s electro? Mine certainly didn’t.

The ultimate cover version for this – the ultimate cover version, full stop, it could also be argued – is Jeff Buckley’s version of ‘Hallelujah’. While I do resent the fact that Buckley’s version has been absorbed into the canon of classics as the definitive version of this track (I maintain that the original Cohen version far outstrips it), I do seriously admire the way in which Buckley manages to completely change the tone and dynamic of the piece: Cohen is steadfast, almost defiant; Buckley sounds nigh on irreparably broken.

This does make for lazy re-covers, though. Alexandra Burke dragged ‘Hallelujah’ kicking and screaming (or perhaps more sobbing and wincing) into the mainstream over the Christmas period. Blatantly, though, she was simply emulating Jeff Buckley. Bad move, love; you didn’t manage to pull it off successfully. Nor did you really manage to tickle my tear ducts; Buckley sounds like he means it, while Burke sounds like she’s just trying really hard to try to sound like she means it. Apparently millions disagreed with me, though.

Interestingly enough (or so I thought), I read an article a while back which suggested that almost every singer who covers Hallelujah now covers Buckley’s version rather than the original. It also asserted that the song has now become so far embedded in popular culture that it has become aural shorthand for generic sad emotion. The article itself can be found here:

Is it even possible now to do anything new with a track which drags so much cultural weight behind it? Yes, if you’re deft enough. One of my current favourite songs is Emmy the Great’s ‘First Love’. While not a cover in the strictest sense of the word, ‘First Love’ draws heavily upon ‘Hallelujah’, even appropriating the chorus as its own. But it works, because it’s knowing – there’s even a direct lyrical reference to “the original Leonard Cohen version”. I’ve started to get a bit evangelical about this song, to be honest, simply because I think it’s a fantastic example of how covers can be fresh and vibrant, really lending something to the artist brave enough to take them on.

So there you are: an original take on things is where it’s at. Well, according to me, anyway.

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