Uncovered: Cover Songs That Don’t Suck. Vol. 1
by Kate Leib on July 5, 2013
Posted in: Music
Cover songs are a tricky trade. Most cover attempts tend to result in a lackluster carbon copy of the original song, usually performed with less precision or talent. But occasionally, you’ll stumble across an innovative band or musician who has succeeded in the old art of reappropriation in putting their own spin on a song, reworking a classic, or reviving an obscure gem from dusty record shelves for a second life. Thinking about covers reminds me of why I love live music. Just noticing the subtle (or not so subtle) differences from a studio version, hearing the roughness of a first and only cut, and experiencing spur of the moment improvisation keeps me coming back to concerts, even if its to see the same band for the fourth time. Variation of the familiar is key for both live music and cover songs.
Sometimes it’s as simple as hearing a band you love cover another band you love. Some cover songs become more famous than the original. Some catapult musicians into new territories of popular recognition, and some even lead to a record deal. Some are unassuming tributes to a song we know can never be topped, but hey it was fun trying. And some songs are covered beyond recognition, for better or for worse. Regardless of a cover’s raison d’etre or critical reception, the cover song holds a unique place in music history, and the concept isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. If anything, the practice has become more prevalent. In the age of social media supersaturation we now have access to millions of covers and bootlegs, some boring, and some brilliant.
Here are some that don’t suck.
Get Lucky (Daft Punk) – Daughter
If you overplayed “Get Lucky” as much as I have, try this refreshing cover of Daft Punk’s hit single by English indie-folk band, Daughter. I’ve been drooling over every Daft Punk release, review, rendition, and remix for the past two months now, and of all the random access rehash, this is the most interesting cover I’ve heard of the bunch, besides maybe The Roots doing their Black Simon and Garfunkel rendition of “Get Lucky” on Jimmy Kimmel. If you’re looking for another bumpin’ remix, this cover probably isn’t your jam, though lead singer Elena Tonra’s irresistibly soft vocals may be just the thing to wind you down after staying up all night ‘til the sun.
The Suburbs (Arcade Fire) – Mr. Little Jeans
Known by her confusingly masculine moniker “Mr. Little Jeans”, Norwegian singer Monica Birkenes takes the title track from Arcade Fire’s 2011 album, The Suburbs, and transforms it into a beautiful and ethereal masterpiece of her own. This covers’ eerie bass and synth instrumentals err on the side of dubstep, and Mr. Little Jeans’ vocals err on the side of heaven.
Beautiful Girls (Sean Kingston) – Deer Tick
Sampling the bassline in Ben E. King’s 1961 classic, “Stand By Me”, Sean Kingston’s 2007 smash hit has been an irresistibly catchy guilty pleasure since the golden days of middle school. I’m an even bigger fan of this cover by Deer Tick. Deer Tick mostly stick to playing good ol’ grungy rock n’ roll with the occasional foray into folky country territory. I always found it myself wishing Sean Kingston would break out singing “Stand By Me”in his version, and Deer Tick answered my prayers., breaking out in a brief but fully satisfying tribute to Ben E. King. Deer Tick keep it retro with some doo-wop back up singing, beachy guitar hooks, and jangly tambourines. All of this is surprisingly complementary when paired with the scratchy vocals of Deer Tick’s lead singer John McCauley. McCauley isn’t quite the baby-faced crooner like Kingston, but somehow with his scraggily mustache, signature gold-tooth, and perpetual cigarette hanging out of his mouth he manages to bring this pop song full circle.
Sea of Love (Phil Phillips) – Cat Power
In 1959, rythym and blues singer wrote and recorded a beautiful song called “Sea of Love”. Since then, the song has been covered by the likes of Iggy Pop, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (this guy), Robert Plant, and Tom Waits among many others. For some reason Phillips’ anti-drug song, “The Evil Dope” was slightly less popular… Cat Power did her own version of “Sea of Love” on her covers record back in 2000, but the cover gained most of its recognition seven years later when it was featured in the indie-flick Juno during that scene where Bleeker comes to the hospital straight from a track meet still donning his short shorts and spikes, and proceeds to spoon with girlfriend who *spoiler alert* just delivered their baby. We’ve all been there, right? But in all seriousness Cat Power can do no wrong on this delicate cover of the mellow R&B classic.
Crazy (Seal) – Yeasayer
I’m a sucker for 90s hit singles. I’m also a sucker for acoustic covers. Enter Yeasayer, a self-described “Middle Eastern-psych-snap-gospel” band covering Seal’s 1991 hit “Crazy”. Wait what are they doing here? Yeasayer bassist Ira Wolf Tuton joked, “this is us covering Rolling Stones covering Everlast covering Pearl Jam covering Seal”. Never mind trying to decipher Yeasayer’s musical stylings, because this lighthearted cover doesn’t sound much like the Yeasayer you might be used to. They strip down for an upbeat acoustic rendition of a Seal’s synth laced pop song. On this track the star vocalist isn’t Chris Keating, rather it is Tuton accompanied by lead guitarist Anand Wilder’s occasional falsetto. In the case of “Crazy”, I think less is more, so consider it Yeasayer: 1 Seal: 0. Though I feel like it’s not over until Yeasayer covers “Kiss From A Rose” or Seal gives “Ambling Alp” his best shot.
Look out for a new Uncovered post coming soon!