Thursday, June 15, 2006

Second Time Around

Here, on a random Thursday, I'd like to present the most recent addition to a time-honored-Milam-tradition of listmaking:

Eight Covers That Are Better Than The Original!

First, some groundrules:
1) We're only troubling ourselves with great songs. I'm not interested in whether or not Kid Rock has a bitchin' take on "Every Rose Has Its Thorn." Bad song = bad cover.
2) The transcendent cover is pop's greatest rarity. That is, this is a very, very short list. Most great songwriters are great studio artists for the same reason: painstaking attention to detail. By the time a song is finished, successful songwriters know just the right arrangement, sound, and execution of the song. So, for someone else to take it in a new direction and somehow tap more directly into a song's emotional core is a rare occurrence.
3) This is not comprehensive. Please add suggestions, as I'm positive I've neglected some worthy covers. But here tis, nonetheless.

Aretha Franklin's "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" (originally by Otis Redding):
So, this one's a layup, but for good reason: Franklin takes an average song (by Redding's standards) and transforms it into a revved-up classic, packed with immediacy and (given its womens' rights subtext) cultural relevance. The opening antecedent/consequent phrase of the R&B guitar is one of pop's most recognizable licks, and Aretha's vocal delivery is as close to perfect as she ever gets--right down to the brilliantly sung opening "ooooh," prefacing every lyric with audible frustration. In Franklin's hands, the song is no longer a plea for compassion--it's a demand for equality.

Beatles' "Twist and Shout" (originally the Isley Brothers):
Allegedly, this was the last song cut for Please Please Me, and they recorded it at the very end of the day. Because of the song's vocal acrobatics, producer George Martin knew Lennon could only give him one take--after, his voice would be gone for the day. Good thing the early Beatles cut their teeth playing cover-band bar gigs, revving up American rock standards to the delight of crowds in Liverpool and Hamburg. Before they were rock's greatest band, they were England's greatest cover band.

First, they execute the song's memorable opening riff to its completion--the Isley's only let it wander into the verse. John's vocal stamp is immediately felt, squeezing five "come ons" into the space where the Isley's neatly counted out one. If the song is one of rock's most enduring rollicking good times, the Beatles' rolick is technically and aesthetically favorable. Not only is the four part harmony ("ahhhhh") better executed in their version, but the climax is more tangibly felt--these four couldn't be having more fun playing. And we couldn't have more fun listening.

Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks" (originally by Kansas City Jo and Memphis Minnie):
Zeppelin made a durable and provocative career out of reinventing the blues. Their revision of "When the Levee Breaks," originally a stripped-down tune by a married blues duo, sonically enacts the of anxiety, excitement, and danger of the lyric. Bonham's steady, ominous drumbeat is quickly accompanied by expert harmonica and slide guitar-playing. After hammering away a fully-instrumental verse and refrain, the band pauses to let Plant's icy delivery take over. His disarmingly vulnerable delivery ("If it keeps on raining/levee's gonna break") is simultaneously matter-of-fact, full of trepidation, and tinged with excitement. The song is about change--good or bad--but Zeppelin's revision of an old blues standard makes this change for the better.

Counting Crows' "Friend of the Devil" (originally by the Grateful Dead):
Although I can't REALLY justify this pick beyond its overhwelming aesthetic achievement, I think that's enough. The problem here is a recurrent problem with the Dead: strong songwriting, spotty musicianship. The original shuffles slowly through its verses without variation, which belies the lyric's narrative. The Counting Crows, on the other hand, create a landscape that matches that of the lyric: nuanced, wistful, sleepy, varied and gorgeous. The most outstanding aspect, of course, is Charlie's ("aw, Charlie!") pitch-perfect work on the keys, which (when compared to the Dead's clunky execution) puts the musicianship of the original to shame.

White Stripes' "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" (originally by Burt freaking Bacharach):
Leave it to Jack and Meg to take a tired American standard by BurtfreakingBacharach and turn it into the sleeper rockhit of 2002. What's so brilliant about their rendition is its devotion to its predecessor, right up to the point that it blows it out of the water. The start is soft and inviting: Jack plays the opening chords and sings in a plaintive falsetto, not unlike Bacharach's original. Until the dual, thundering hits following the opening line. Then the prechorus creeps in with rising distortion, building to something it's not quite to. The song doesn't break out until the first chorus ("Like a summer rose..."), fully developing the desperation and resentment that Jack White has clearly related to in the original lyric.

By the time the final chorus comes around, there's no turning back, no hitting the "clean pedal," no quieting the band: Jack doesn't know what to do with himself, and he's lost complete control. The song's memorable linking riff (the three-note melody that comes after "I just don't know...") jumps up an octave, screeching its own feedback. The result is an emotionally varied rock song that sets up a foundation, only to tear it down in a fit of perfectly-executed chaos.

Nirvana's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," (originally by Huddy Ledbelly):
The only live performance on the list, its inclusion is based solely off Kurt's "Unplugged" cover of Huddy Ledbelly's country/blues anomaly. While I admit that the cover's arrangement is not dissimilar from the original, it's the overwhelming context of Cobain's performance that forces its mention: this was the last piece of live video we have of Nirvana's frontman before he died two months later. So, the personal implications of "where did you sleep last night/in the pines, in the pines/where the sun don't ever shine," are hard to miss: Kurt is, in one definitive and eerily prescient performance, forecasting his own death.

When the final refrain picks up and Cobain's vocals rise an entire octave, he is literally screaming the final lyrics with breathless precision, sustaining "shiver" until he's completely out of breath, stopping for one moment to take a pained gasp and open his eyes for the first time, knowing it's over and he's nailed his definitive performance, and milks the ending phrase ("the whole...night through"), and lets the band play the outtro. Sure, the cover itself is a fairly faithful recreation, but Cobain's performance became so memorable, so culturally significant, that it transcended its predecessor and created a legend.

Jeff Buckley's "Halleluja" (originally by Leonard Cohen):
Jeff Buckley was one of rock's biggest--and most elusive--talents. Although his most acclaimed album, Grace, was full of virtuousic guitar-playing and influential vocals, he rarely embraced accessibility. Artist, sure, but nobody's entertainer. That's why his cover of Leonard Cohen's lyrical masterpiece "Halleluja" is his most enduring legacy, and has become the definitive version of the song: it's one instance where Buckley focused all his considerable energy and talent into making Cohen's song vocally accessible, and aestheticially beautiful.

Every moment of his cover--from the opening cadences, which then vary tellingly during his solo, which are then revisited at the song's conclusion--is packed with nuanced precision, a combination of faithful dedication to Cohen's amazing lyric and effortlessly gorgeous expansion. Nothing shows off, but nothing holds back, right down to the concluding falsetto "halleluja" which is sustained for an unbelievable length of time. Cohen's songs were always ripe for the cover-picking because of his sparse instrumentation and monotone delivery; it took Buckley's greatest six minutes to make this cover an absolute classic.

Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" (originally by Bob Dylan):
If the story is true, then Hendrix heard Dylan's "Watchtower" the night of its release and immediately drove to the studio to cover it. This story is believable, not just because of Jimi's tendency to behave spontaneously, but because his cover is so obviously the work of immediate (and perhaps divine) inspiration.

I've often heard people say that they enjoy Dylan...when someone else is doing him. I always thought this was weak criticism, because Dylan (for all his vocal oddities and studio peculiarities) was so keenly aware of each song's emotional core, and knew better than others how to find it, illustrate it, and fully develop it. The Byrds' most famous covers ("Tambourine Man," "All I Really Want to Do," etc.) are prettier, but not as interesting--lacking Dylan's essential narrative persona and complex vocal delivery.

But Hendrix's cover of "Watchtower" is the standard. How could he have understood, after a few listens in the middle of the night, the song'soddly labrynthine narrative? Its anxieties and concerns? Well, he did, and the result is four-minutes of masterful revision. In Dylan's original, the song's tone is steady but wary, anxious yet aware. Hendrix's arrangement expands on this: the emphatic drumming gives the song a new immediacy, and the opening cadence perfectly aligns the song's contradictions; it's fighting against itself to assert some kind of control (or at least perspective) on this ominous scene. Hendrix's vocals are both measured and unrestrained, emoting clearly the narrator's confusion despite his omniscient eye. And by the time the narrative recycles itself ("two riders were approaching/and the wind began to howl") in one of pop's most forboding lines, Hendrix knows better than anyone how to howl. So he does, the result being one of rock's most famous guitar solos. By the song's end, everything is perfectly coordinated yet feels scattered, and the fade-out is appropriate given the lyric's lack of resolution.

Ultimately, this cover established Hendrix as not only a virtuousic talent but a truly gifted and thoughtful composer--and rearranger--of other people's music. Perhaps the greatest compliment came from Dylan himself, who said in hindsight of Hendrix's cover, "I think I wrote it for Jimi." And there's nothing else to say.

Working for the weekend,


Phil said...

This might be blasphemy, but I like David Lee Roth's version of California Girls much better than the Beach Boys.

You nailed it Buckley's Hallelujah too.

HUCK said...

I agree with everything listed... except... The Counting Crows.

No no no no no. Friend of the Devil needs Jerry's reedy vocals and the hurdy-gurdy instrumentals provided by the rest of their wild-minstral show to pull it off. I'll admit the production of the studio recording is weak, but it still outweighs any lame Counting Crows attempt.

Rachel said...

Uh, I don't know if I should admit this, but I like GUS's version of "Don't Fear the Reaper" (for the Scream soundtrack) better than BOC's...

What about Counting Crow's cover of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi?"

Totally agree on the others.

Anonymous said...

"Louie, Louie", the Kingsmen's version, outdid Richard Berry's version. Y'all too young to have thought of that one. This is your historical #1 cover.

Oh, and there's Elvis' cover of Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes."

saraclark said...

There are so many different versions of "Where did you sleep last night" from Ledbelly to Bill Monroe(the version that I originally knew) to Nirvana's. I agree with you that Cobain's cover elevated that song even higher in history. It was my dog's favorite song and she would howl and sing right along with that version.

I have always liked Dylan's songs better when performed by someone else. Good List and well thought out.

Chris Milam said...

Wow, good to see some varying demographics.

The Crows' "Devil" cover might just be an aesthetic preference, but Joni Mitchell's "Taxi" executes its sentiment better, I think. Duritz and the Gang almost sound celebratory which probably wasn't the lyric's point.

The Kingsmen's "Louie" is definitive, but Lord, what is the song about? Help me out here.

MASSIVE oversight on "Blue Suede Shoes," though. As a musician and Memphian, I deserve to be punished.

Thanks for the comments, and keep reading!

Andy said...

Elvis Costello's version of "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?" is a vast improvement on the original Brinsley Schwarz version (featuring Nick Lowe on vocals and bass).

But then, Dave Edmunds version of "Girls Talk" is much better than Costello's original.

Jeff Healy's version of John Hiatt's "Angel Eyes" is better than the original, as is Bonnie Raitt's cover of "Thing Called Love." (Hiatt has made a lot of artists look good, for that matter. It's what good songwriters should do.)

Willie Nelson covered Fred Rose's "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain" and made it his own. But Patsy Cline's cover of "Crazy" is still way better than any version I've ever heard out of Willie.

Janis Joplin's "Me & Bobby McGee" is an example of a cover which you almost wouldn't know was one -- of a Kris Kristofferson song.

Oh, and how could you forget Cash covering Trent Reznor's "Hurt?"

Michael said...

Good picks, but I think you should really check out Stevie Ray Vaughan's cover of "Little Wing" originally by hendrix. SRV takes the song and strips out the vocals and just sings with the guitar. Now I know you're not a huge instrumental fan, but give this a listen and you'll find that his stevie portrays just as much if not more emotion than any singer ever could...He really makes the guitar cry (@ 3:57).

In my opinion SRV was the best blues rock guitarist ever.

Mimi said...

The Lyle Lovett "Friend of the Devil" cover is by far the best one ever.

Cricket said...

Hmm, mine are: Steve Earle doing Townes' "Tecumseh Valley," Johnny doing NIN's "Hurt," Jeff Buckley's doing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" (this seems universal, but then just about anyone does Cohen better than he does it himself), Lucero doing Jawbreaker's "Kiss the Bottle," and Townes van Zandt doing the Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers."

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