A Transformational Cover: It Covers All Transformations

For the record, I don’t like cover versions of songs. I believe they are excellent learning/practice tools, but, in general, I prefer they stay in the rehearsal and off of recordings and stages.The worst part of covers is when a new band does a relatively faithful cover of the original version. If you — I’m talking to bands here — have to do a cover, make it something new and interesting, please. For me.

Superman by REM

That said, one of my favorite recordings of all time is a cover song, albeit of a relatively obscure band. When REM recorded “Superman”, I heard it as an ecstatic joyous semi-psychedelic whirl. Damn them! I sang along at maximum volume (both me and REM) in harmony, in unison, or even just making things up as I went. True, the lyrics make it sound a little creepy, like an egotistical stalker, but it actually feels celebratory and empowering, so I’ll go with that. Just this very moment, I tracked down the original version from 1969 by the Clique and it turns out REM did a faithful cover. Double damn them! Since I am currently in mild-rant mode, I will conveniently ignore any hypocrisy I’ve just shown.

Sure, I do respect several cover versions, but only because they add something really interesting. My criteria for a good cover:

  1. It has to be interesting on it’s own without any knowledge of the original version
  2. The contrast between original and the cover versions must be at least somewhat striking
  3. Irony … must have irony.

Until recently, I had exactly two perfect examples of this one by Aztec Camera, the other by Tori Amos.

  1. Once upon a time, I sort of liked Van Halen. Songs like “Panama” and “Jamie’s Crying” were just simple hard rock fun. At the time, I felt like a relatively serious kid and so the silliness of the whole party rock vibe didn’t interest me. Worse yet, when David Lee Roth left — he was the ultimate party rock star — I liked them even less. That embarrassed me a little. Roth left, in part, because the band was taking on a more keyboard-friendly sound characterized by their 1983 single “Jump”. Really, I did not like this song. Not. At. All. To an early snob like me, it was simplistically peppy, like cheerleaders performing from rote rather than joy. The song’s characteristic chorus came across as a more song-worthy version of “If life sucks, just jump up and get into something better.” The very next year, Aztec Camera did a slowed down, minimalist cover of the song that made it completely different. Objectively, their cover was a decent morose song. Decent, not great. But, by changing the tone of the song suddenly Roth’s joyful leaping was transformed into despondent plunging from high places. That contrast worked and, oddly, made me smile listening to a song that was now about suicide. Better yet, the new version’s somberness poked fun at the party personality I didn’t care for.
  2. Crucify by Tori Amos

    The same trick worked a second time, five years later, this time involving a song I loved and still do: Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Like Van Halen (I shiver writing that), the original Nirvana version seethed with high energy, maybe even masculine high energy. The video showed the song turning a crowd from complacent teenagers to raging destructive moshers. That’s real, isn’t it? The obvious contrast came from Tori Amos in 1992 on her Crucify EP. Amos stripped it down to just piano and voice. No crowds, just solitude and angst by candle light. OK, the lyrics themselves now sound pretty stupid, but Amos sings them so persuasively that it doesn’t matter.

So, for awhile, I loved two transformational covers and one ^%%$#$* pitch-perfect cover. Last week, I added a third. Before you read another sentence, try listening to it below and see if you can guess the original without reading the video title. Many of you know the original (sorry mom, we’ll talk separately), but, unless you listen all the way through (or cheated), I think few would guess it from this cover version.

I heard this version first on the SoundCheck podcast. Of course, it is the Juice Vocal Ensemble performing a re-arranged cover version of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine” where two sopranos turn the characteristic guitar riff into bird song and the alto turns the lyrics into something mournful. The cover performers fall in the realm of modern classical where ‘classical’ refers to their arty sound reminiscent of older vocals styles and ‘modern’ refers to their willingness to be weird even having DJ remixes on their albums. I am intrigued by the Juice Vocal Ensemble, much as I was intrigued by Roomful of Teeth. Their sound, though, is a little weird for me and, frankly, I’m not a fan of DJ remixes. Still, their GnR cover is pretty awesome.

So, that’s three transformational covers, just enough for a post, not enough to prove expertise. That’s about right for this blog …

10 thoughts on “A Transformational Cover: It Covers All Transformations

  1. David, good to see you back – or have I just missed something? Anyway, as to covers on stage – I was actually told to do covers live – to warm folks up with something familiar before hitting them with the uncharted (and possibly deep) waters or original materials. Still, I agree with you – it is a great way to warm up a voice in the security of the rehearsal – but I like less and less singing them in public. However, let me add this one to the covers-done-right category and then let you go on back to your notions. Fields of Gold by Sting is good. Fields of Gold by Eva Cassidy is transcendent. Just sayin’

    • That is an excellent cover! It drops some of the occasionally-annoying Sting characteristics and emphasizes the poetry of the song. I like it!

      Have you missed something? Nah. I’ve been hurting and whining elsewhere (over at the Marmot place). Plus, I’ve been a bit short of fully developed ideas (I can’t stop listening to Hubner’s latest long enough to write it up). I’m actually one week into feeling semi-normal which, frankly, is a really cool thing.

        • He’s got a lengthy collaboration with his friend Shane Darin Page as Cambodia Highball. It’s a wide-ranging psychedelic improvisational thing ranging from psych-pop to something like space-jazz. There’s several tracks where time just vanishes. Maybe I should get help for those …

          • I am with you in that if a group takes a song I already love and sticks to the original version, I am rarely impressed. If though, they change it up enough – put their own spin on it – you will often find me swooning.

          • Yes! It’s fun to hear something with a vague hint of the familiar. “That sounds vaguely like a polka version of ‘Crazy Train’ … I wonder.” Actually, that probably wouldn’t be so good.

          • Hee hee. It would probably be pretty terrible, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to hear it anyway:)

  2. That cover is trippy but weirdly relaxing to listen to… I like your criteria for cover songs, I can’t stand when someone covers a song and keeps it exactly the same– why would I want to bother listening to that?

    • Here here (hear hear?)! If you have to redo it, twist the song around first!

      Still, I do like the near perfect cover REM did. Maybe covering obscure songs works, too …

Am I wrong?