Trust the Gene Genie

Friday, May 23, 2008

Covers and perfect pop songs

I have a love-hate relationship with cover songs. When done right and done well, they can blow your mind. That, of course, is a rare thing. Most of the time, the cover is nothing better or more elegant than a late-night neighorhood karaoke performance. (The Web site, is a great database of who's covered who.)

A couple examples to illustrate my point. Sometime in the mid-'90s The Sundays did a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses." It works as well as it does because The Sundays tap into the original vibe of the song while giving it their signature mellow, clarion sound, which is a perfect fit for a classic Jagger/Richards song like "Horses."

Then there's Eva Cassidy's famous cover of Sting's "Fields of Gold," a textbook example of doing a cover right. She doesn't try to do things with the song it wasn't meant to do. She keeps it simple, uses her best asset -- her voice -- and makes that the center of the performance. It's one of the few cover songs I prefer to the original.

Now, some argue some songs simply can't or shouldn't be covered. Talk to any die-hard Beatles fan. But I say no song is untouchable. However, the more popular the song, the more beloved, the more respected, then the more inventive the artist who's covering it needs to be. Because ultimately, you've got to prove that there's a reason to cover the song in the first place. And if that's not setting yourself up to fail I don't know what is. The more inventive you try to be with a well-known, well-loved song, the greater chance for complete and utter failure.

You remember that link I posted a few months back of Celine Dion's terrible, terrible cover of ACDC's "You Shook Me All Night Long"? Yeah, sorry to remind you about that. But it's a perfect example of how awful covers can be.

But picking on Celine Dion for performing bad covers is a little like picking on the retarded kid in class who always craps his pants. It's not his fault. It's just what he does.

No, the famously bad covers are by bands or artists who are just setting themselves up to fail. Like Madonna covering "American Pie" or Limp Bizkit doing "Behind Blue Eyes." They're just terrible.

I have kids. That means we own "Cars." Which means I've heard Rascal Flatts' high school basement band-worthy cover of "Life Is a Highway" more times than I can count. I die a little every time I hear a Rascal Flatts song. And I remember a few summers ago when the Ataris -- one of those early '00s pretty punk bands that sound and look slicker than most career studio bands -- did their cover of Don Henley's "Boys of Summer." It just fell flat.

And there's a whole 'nother category I'm purposely avoiding. You know, the so-bad-it's-good cover song. William Shatner's famous "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" or Dolly Parton's, believe it or not, cover of "Stairway to Heaven." Deep down I believe these songs are intentionally ironic and so I'll leave 'em for another day.

So, with summer coming on I think it's time to start another round of our only running feature, Perfect Pop Songs. This will be the covers version. If you need a refresher, here's Vol. 1 and here's Vol. 2.

So let's get it started with three of my most favoritest covers ever.

1. The Afgham Whigs' "Can't Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe" -- This, in my opinion, is one of the all time great cover songs. The Whigs were an early '90s post-punk band from the midwest. Their cover of Barry White's soulful classic is the perfect mix of irony, devotion and sheer attitude. Becky hates the song.

2. Waz's "I Will Follow" -- U2's a hard band to cover. They're sound is so specific and their songs are so well known that they're just difficult to escape. And still a lot of people try. To middling success. KMFDM's cover of "Mysterious Ways" is very, well, KMFDM. And the Pet Shop Boys' cover of "Streets" is fun but far from noteworthy. But Waz, who used to play guitar with Pete Yorn, takes "I Will Follow" and completely turns the song on it's head, finding it's emotional core and turning it into a beautiful, romantic love song. It's absolutely stunning.

3. U2's "Can't Help Falling in Love" -- Likewise, U2 isn't really at their best when they're covering other bands. They famously developed the sound they did becuase as teenagers they couldn't play anyone else music. Some of that still exists today. Their covers of the Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" and Cole Porter's "Night and Day" are kind of interesting and fun to hear in a I-wonder-what-this-song-would-sound-like-with-U2's-sound, but they're far from great. And then there's "Unchained Melody" -- one of the band's biggest missteps ever, in my opinion. Which makes "Can't Help" such a surprise. It's beautiful and haunting and just amazing. It's makes perfect use of Bono's falsetto and really takes the song far beyond its rock-a-billy roots -- in a very good way.

Anyway. There it is. Covers. Everyone's got an opinion, so jump into the comments and give me yours. What covers do you hate, which do you love and which songs shuold never be touched?

And then I'll get back on next week, post some of the better comments and list my summer predictions for 2008. It'll be fun.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

With the boys

So I'm a little late, the important thing is that it hasn't been a month since my last post. So here we go. Four years of taking my girls to a fathers/sons campout and I still get a few looks. Mostly now it's from guys in different wards. But deep down, I suppose, that's part of the appeal for me.

Anyway, we all had a blast. I found I was a little busier with both girls than with just one, which I think makes sense. But it was still unexpected. The girls loved being outdoors, having their own flashlights, sleeping in a big open tent and seeing nature up close. They were both really intrigued by the fire. When we went to use the latrine after dinner, Claire got a little freaked out when a bunch of flies flew out of the toilet. I think that was the first time I genuinely felt bad girls can't stand up and pee.

We didn't get a lot of sleep. It wasn't nearly as cold as in years past, but the girls still got a little chilled in the night. Then, at about 5, 5:30 a.m. Claire woke up having to pee. Which woke Leigh up and there was no way she was staying in the tent alone while Claire and I went to the latrine. And she didn't want to put on her shoes. So I carried her, and Claire and I walked to the bathroom.

Of course, by the time we got back to the tent we were all awake. So we laid down and read "When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit." It was actually kind of fun. By breakfast, the girls were much more comfortable with the fire, so much so that Claire was sticking large pine branches into the flame until the end would light up. We put an end to that pretty quick. And then they discovered the plastic flatware. They didn't even have to hold it in the fire for the utensils to melt. They got a really kick watching each individual tong on the forks curl up and turn black. We came home with handfuls of them.

Later in the day we took off to the Subway Caves just up the highway and did some exploring. The girls loved that. The caves themselves are pretty cool. The area east of Redding was pretty active volcanically centuries ago and the tubes formed when great flows of lava burst up from the ground. The surface of the lava flow would harden in the cool air and insulate the still molten lava deep in the flow. Once the lava had run, the outer shells remained around now-empty tubes where the liquid lava had flowed. They're huge. We turned off the lights a couple times plunging everyone into pitch blackness. The girls loved that. We got to the end and decided to walk back through one more time. Except Leigh, who thought it was too cold inside the cave. We've gotta get this girl out of California.

Anyway, it was a great time. I really enjoy taking the girls camping.

And while I'm at it, let me throw this out. It's one of the reasons I love Tom Waits. It's from a recent interview:

Sample question: "Do you have words to live by?"

Waits: "Jim Jarmusch once told me, 'Fast, Cheap, and Good ... pick two. If it’s fast and cheap, it wont be good. If it’s cheap and good, it won’t be fast. If it’s fast and good, it wont be cheap.' Fast, cheap and good .. pick (2) words to live by."

Friday, May 16, 2008

The heat, it appears, is on

Well, it's May 16 (I think. I guess I should have checked the date before I sat down to write). Anyway, we broke 100 yesterday and May is only half over. One-hundred degrees. I think the official high out at the airport was 103. Whoever settle this town is an idiot. It's going to be a long summer.

I've kinda been on a U2 jag as of late. It's got me thinking about a few things not necessarily U2-related. Last Christmas I got a copy of the book "U2 By U2" -- it's basically the band's history as told by the band. And it's pretty interesting.

But man, it kills the mystique. I remember discovering the band in high school and trading around books like "Unforgettable Fire" and "At the End of the World" learning things about the band's history and the relationship between the members. You felt like a researcher, learning things no one else knew and finding out little facts that helped unlock some of the songs.

I learned cool stuff, like how Larry had posted the band notice at Mount Temple when they were all in high school and essentially gave birth to the band. And arcane stuff, like "With or Without You" is a song about heroine addiction. I'll admit, it made the song cooler. And I don't know that that was really widely known in the early '90s.

Anyway, on the other hand, there were always things that you didn't know, things shrouded in mystery. For instance, was "One" really about the band wanting to break up? Or was it an imagined tale, like a lot of fans in the '90s argued, about what Bono would say to a hypothetical gay son. It was one of those things that was fun to debate among friends and fans.

Of course, a lot of those notions were dispelled as the internet age grew. At nearly the same exact time, the band was trying to come back to the pop culture mainstream after their perceived "Pop" debacle and so all of a sudden, the band was showing up in places they'd never been seen before. They were promoting "All That You Can't Leave Behind" and showing up on SNL and CNN and Vh1 to a lot of fanfare.

And all it was archived online. It was really easy to get tons of info on the band. Which was really cool. My most favoritest band was completely accessible in so many ways for the first time. But it's funny, I was getting to know more about the band and the songs and, almost imperceptively, my interest in them was fading.

And then a couple years ago, "U2 By U2" came out. As I read it over Christmas break, I discovered two things. One: the format is really tedious. It's essentially a 350-page interview transcript. Two: The band has a really cool history.

And that's when it hit. Rock bands, along with great music, need to have some kind of mystique to remain interesting.

Knowing almost everything it's possible to know about U2 leaves little to the imagination. Which, in turn, makes it a little harder to get lost in the music, a little harder to get excited when you see them show up in "unexpected" places and a little harder to get excited about what they've done.

Is this how Beatles fans feel?

Or maybe I'm just getting old and caring about all these kinds of things less.

Believe it or not, the internet has led to another problem.

I remember being in high school and friend of mine, Brian Memmott, coming in with a taped copy of U2's cover of "Can't Help Falling in Love" -- it was a reasonably rare "Zoorpa"-era b-side. We didn't eally know that in high school -- we just figured we'd disovered gold.

And that's what I really miss in the internet age -- that sense of discovery you have when you stumbled across things rare and arcane. That doesn't happen anymore. You don't discover anything anymore because everything's out there and instantly accessible. I mean INSTANTLY accessible. That's not to say the Internet is bad. It just kind of spoils you.

A friend, Ryan Jensen, pointed that out few years ago when U2 put their entire catalogue up on iTunes for a while. He spent most of high school trying to get his hands on a rare U2 "Unforgettable Fire"-era B-side called "Sixty Seconds in Kingdom Come." He talked about that inimitable feeling of finally finding it in some dive, taking it home and listening to it.

Of course, when U2 did the iTunes thing, it was immediately available to anyone with 99 cents. Which isn't a bad thing, it's a pretty cool tune. But man, it sure takes away the fun.

And that's off my chest. It's been rattling around my head since January. Anyway, if you're still reading, that means you're either bored or my mom.

I leave tonight for the annual fathers/sons campout and in true Rogers fashion, I'll be taking my daughters. I'll get something up here about it on Sunday. I swear.

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