Friday, July 31, 2009

The art of the cover version: Two that shouldn't work but do

The cover (no pun) of Paul Anka's Rock Swings. Image found here.

Some of you know that I find myself drawn to odd cover versions of songs; indeed, one of you publicly expressed concern for my state of mental health when I posted a link to the Leningrad Cowboys' version of "Delilah" (which, yes, you really should have the pleasure of seeing). Of late, I find myself indulging in this pleasure more overtly; earlier this week over at an author forum I frequent, I've started a thread of some odd pairings of singer (or arrangement) and song.

Sure: it's part lark, this interest of mine. But I've also this week given some thought to the whole idea of cover versions of songs--specifically, what works and what doesn't, and why. To choose to sing someone else's song is at some level, after all, an artistic choice. So, then, what to do?

The first (and, frankly, least interesting) option is the straight cover. There's an undeniable initial weirdness in seeing Garth Brooks with KISS performing "Hard Luck Woman," but that wears off pretty quickly. In its place comes the realization that neither is interested in re-imagining this song. In fact, for me the most striking thing about this performance is the realization that Brooks could easily have written this himself: that stylistically, "Hard Luck Woman" fits comfortably into what is passing for mainstream country music these days. Straight covers are respectful and respectable versions of the original: not a bad thing, especially when the song is a good one, but, well, not terribly interesting for the listener.

The second is the cover that makes the listener reconsider his/her thinking about the original. It's analogous to a skilled critic's re-interpretation of a literary text or a skilled actor's performance of a familiar role or, as often happens with Shakespeare these days, a re-setting of the play in an unexpected place or genre (think of Macbeth done in the motifs of a story about the Mob, for example): it reveals a dimension to the work that makes the original look strange--in a good way--to the listener.

Here are two examples of what I mean.

Paul Anka, "Smells Like Teen Spirit":

I very much like the Nirvana original--one of the most visceral pieces of grunge you'll ever hear--and so I was prepared to guffaw my way through Anka's performance. Swing, after all, is surely diametrically opposed to grunge. But. In my opinion, it really, really works well. The song becomes sexy assertiveness, as embodied in the big finish, rather than the original's teenage existential angst.

Dolly Parton, "Stairway to Heaven":

Where others hear a stoner anthem, Parton hears a spiritual and, moreover, pushes the Zep original's folky beginning to a U.S. version of its logical conclusion. But neither the song nor bluegrass-as-genre get mocked here--and the same is true of Anka's performance. Both are treated with respect despite their surface incompatibility, like a good marriage. And that, in a nutshell, seems to me to be the key to a successful, artistically-valuable cover as well.


R. Sherman said...

Where does this fit?


John B. said...

Mr. Shatner gets (or deserves) his own category).

Thanks for stopping by.

kansasmediocrity said...

Hello John B
Long time no hear from ya
How about Ozzy Osbourne done in BLUEGRASS STYLE?

kansasmediocrity said...


Rick C. Neece said...

Hi John,
It has been a while since I looked in. Pardon, if you will. I love your statements, here. I also look for covers of songs that stretch the limits of what we might expect from a cover. Nothing is more boring than a cover done by a recording artist who changed nothing. What could possibly be the point? Danny and I put together a "mix-tape" on an annual basis that we duplicate and share with friends as our annual "greeting." Four or five years ago, we did one we called "Between Covers" that had the best (in our humble estimations) covers we had heard in our time together. This version of Dolly's was part of it. (Honestly, I don't think I ever "heard" the words until I heard her sing it.)