Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Island's Got You Covered...(Or Insert Other Bad Cover Pun)

I don't remember if I came up with this on my own or if I heard it somewhere, but I firmly believe that "a good cover is one that makes you appreciate the original in a different way." My good friend Harsha and I have talked at length about the value of a good cover. They come in many forms - some stay true to the original, and some alter it almost to the point where it's a different song entirely. Of course the best way to judge a cover is "does it sound good?" But even that is difficult. We've all seen those YouTube comments that describe a cover as "better than the original!" Or on the flip side, "utter garbage." Because everyone wants something different when they hear a cover, depending on who is doing it and in what context.
This is probably going to end up a multi-part list, so I'll just start with five. I won't be talking about covers that many people know better than the original - so I won't mention "All Along The Watchtower" or "Higher Ground", and I'm gonna try to avoid the ones that are often mentioned in "Best Covers" lists (including one of my favorites, Johnny Cash's emotional man-at-the-end-of-his-life rendition of NIN's "Hurt"). I'm gonna try to talk about the ones that I find interesting, whether positively or negatively. I am also only going to talk about covers that are recorded on albums or as singles/B-sides, rather than some that bands exclusively perform live. Otherwise I could be here all day.
So here goes:

1. Katy Perry: "Use Your Love." We'll start with one that Harsha showed me. He and I have a love for The Outfield's "Your Love" that borders on ridiculous. The mighty one-hit wonder is an oft-quoted source of joy in our lives, and the 2013 SNL sketch revolving around it is amazing. Now, Katy Perry is an admitted guilty pleasure of mine, and I like a lot of her songs. Still, this cover took me a few listens before it grew on me. She alters the lyrics to be from a girl's perspective, matching The Outfield's moral ambiguity with her own (regarding cheating), and ups the tempo into a dance pop number (which, when Perry first heard the original in a club, was the vibe she got from the song, inspiring her to cover it). The result may not be quite as satisfying as the original, but it's still a lot of fun, and despite the hate that Katy Perry gets from most classic rock fans, is definitely worth a listen. Use Your Love Video

2. Toto, "Burn Down The Mission." Toto's 2005 covers album, Through The Looking Glass, was seen as somewhat of a letdown by critics who were hoping to see more of a reworking of the songs, rather than straightfoward renditions. But Toto's goal in making the album was just to have fun playing their favorites, and adding a little Toto flavor while they did it. Bobby Kimball, (now-former) lead singer, chose to pay tribute to Sir Elton John with this cover, and it's a great choice. All the power of Kimball's over-the-top vocals comes into play as he channels the desperate-turned-triumphant emotions of the song's protagonist, and this, combined with the rest of Toto's musical prowess, creates a whirlwind of a song that will definitely make you take anything the critics say with a grain of salt. Burn Down The Mission Video

3. Santana ft. Nas, "Back in Black." Believe me, I already know what you're thinking. "I'm sorry, what? Nas singing AC/DC?" 2010 saw Santana taking his trademark formula of teaming up with assorted lead singers on each album and applying it to classic rock covers, resulting in Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time. He brings in several modern names in rock and other genres to perform Santana-fied renditions of some of the best rock songs of decades past, and in teaming up with Nas...I'm not ashamed to say that I finally understand the words to this song after hearing Nas rap them. But more than that, the song is totally fitting for a rapper. It's all about how awesome the vocalist is, how he packs a punch and can't wait to show you how legendary he is. Whether it's Brian Johnson singing at the top of his lungs, or Nas bringing his cool swagger to it, the song becomes a serious headbanger in either version. Back in Black Video

4. Alex Clare, "When Doves Cry." Alex Clare is best known for the song "Too Close", made popular by those MSN commercials from a few years ago. His 2011 album The Lateness of the Hour attempts to fuse EDM soundscapes and pop songwriting. It doesn't always hit its mark, but one of the spots where it does is this cover. He takes Prince's synthpop seduction dance and turns it into an emotionally-charged dubstep-flavored ballad. Clare's story is an interesting one - according to legend, his first record deal fell through when he was unable to book dates on Saturdays because of his Orthodox Jewish practices. He later gained fame through the Microsoft commercials, while his vacant spot at the first record label was filled by a young woman named Adele. Funny how life works out. (The only available video is this one, where someone choreographed a hoop routine to the song: When Doves Cry Video)

5. Vanessa Carlton, "Paint It Black." I first heard this song at a dance concert, where someone choreographed an intense piece that was only enhanced by Carlton's raw vocals. The songstress behind every '90s-kid's favorite piano intro has a rock side, too, and in fact, it's later on that same album that brought us "A Thousand Miles" where she pays homage to the Rolling Stones. When the sitar drone brings you in, followed by the floor tom pedaling up to the first verse, you think, "okay, this could be good." Then the drums drop out and it's just Vanessa and the bass line spitting out the words through gritted teeth...and then that snare hit and Vanessa cuts loose with, "I see the girls walk by..." and once again, you can't help but headbang the whole way through. Paint It Black Video

I could go on and on about my favorite covers. But what are some of yours? Or do you disagree with my thoughts on these? Or are there better cover versions of these songs? Let me hear from you!