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, TheCoversProject.com 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.
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