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.


Ronifer269 said...

Rob, can you shoot me a copy? (Waz) I can't find it and would love to add it to the ipod.

Stephanie B said...

I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Eva Cassidy's Fields of Gold. I agree, I prefer it to the original. Ever since you put it on the family website years ago, I've loved it. Thanks for bringing it out again!

TheRobRogers said...

I've got you covered, Jense.

urpy said...

Ugh! I think 90 percent of the people who listen to your list will agree with me on the Afghan Wigs. It's awful. It's so difficult to listen to that I about start ripping my hair out after too much exposure to the song.

Uncle E said...

I think that Elvis Costello's version Of Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny('Bout Peace Love and Understanding) is one of the all time greats.
You mention Wild Horses. I would say that the Flying Burrito Brothers version is not only the definitive cover version but the definitive version. Period.
Some fun ones: Aztec Camera's version of "JUMP" by Van HAlen is great, as is Teenage Fanclub's version of Madonna's Like A Virgin. Ben Folds does a damn fine version of TIny Dancer by Elton, and Johnny Cash's version of HURT by Nine Inch Nails is pretty awesome as well. There's so many, Rob, I could go on forever.
Great topic!

Anonymous said...

Aaron here,

Smooth Criminal by Alien Ant Farm is always at the top of the covers list. That and the video is freakin cool.

ThomG said...

Social Distortion's version of the Carter/Cash classic "Ring of Fire." If you're going to cover it, you might as well own it. For pure camp, check out anything by Richard Cheese, who puts a lounge act into popular songs; I really like his version of The Beastie Boys, "Fight (For "Your Right) to Party."

Diana said...

Richard Cheese doing Guns and Roses "Welcome to the Jungle" is outstanding.
re: covering Beatles songs...Bono doing "I am the Walrus" in Across the Universe is just stinking cool.
Worst covers? Anything James Blunt does. I dare you to listen to any of his U2 covers on YouTube. He just shouldnt be singing at all, but there you have it.

Gunderstruck said...

I hope you don't mind me just jumping in here. But if you're going to throw out such nuggets as:

"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."

Pretty much means I can't control myself. There is nothing you could have said that could make me love this blog post more.

Amen, Rob Rogers. AMEN!!!

TheRobRogers said...

Welcome, welcome, Traci. You stick around and comment all you want.

Nik said...

What, you dirty wanker, you didn't even tell me you have a blog??? I send hate rays.

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