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I’ve got it covered

November 10, 2009

There is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. I’m wearing real clothes today, clothes with buttons and zippers and not lycra and elastic. I’ve done a load of laundry and made my own breakfast. One of my eyes has recovered and the other is on the mend. I’m still banned from the kitchen and AJ’s school and I’ve still spent most of the day in a semi-horizontal position, but there’s hope. I fear, though, for Mr. Spy’s health. Not only has he had germ exposure, but he’s been running around like a madman trying to keep us in food and clean clothes, to make sure AJ gets his homework done and gets to his after school events on time. Solo parenting is no picnic.

Let this be a lesson to you: get your H1N1 vaccines!

Okay, enough about that.

Florinda posted about cover songs today. It’s something I’ve been thinking about, mostly in connection with my new favorite show Glee, which is all about covers. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the covers I like better than the originals. Florinda asked us to dig into our playlists and fess up to our favorite covers. Here are mine, hot off my iPod. I edited out all Christmas carols, of which I have many multiple versions, and classical music, ditto. I’ve also omitted most folk and jazz, where playing old songs anew is part of the aesthetic. You really don’t want to know how may versions I own of “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “J’attendrai,” or any number of string quartets.

“Walkin(g) After Midnight.” Originally recorded by Patsy Cline (although it had been written for another singer Kay Starr, who didn’t use it); covered by Cowboy Junkies. It’s been covered dozens of times. I have the original — a classic, and also the Cowboy Junkies’ rendition in a live recording from their 200 More Miles compilation. The Cowboy Junkies take is a very different song. It opens with a long slow conversation between violin and guitar. The whole thing is slower and sexier, louche. The violin and guitar come off as characters in a seedy southern drama. It’s terrific.

“The Waters of March.” Originally by Antonio Carlos Jobim; covered by Holly Cole. Do I really need to write about this again? I love this song. I’ve written about it many times before. You can read about it here, where I talk about why I like Cole’s version more than others. Here are the lyrics and why I think it’s the perfect love song. Here is a parody of the song rewritten as an encomium to the Trader Joe’s shopping experience.

“Mad World.” Original by Tears for Fears; covered by Gary Jules with Michael Andrews. I have the original 1982 Tears for Fears version, which was a favorite of mine in high school. I loved it (and still do) for its playful movement between major and minor keys. The cover is best known from the Donnie Darko soundtrack, or so I hear. I’ve never seen the movie, but heard this version on the radio and fell for it. Not a happy song, but a pretty one. It reminds me a lot of “Too Much Between Us” in mood and its major/minor navigation. It slows down the pace, strips away the arrangement. It’s just a ragged voice and a quiet piano. It’s a totally different side of the song, one that’s maybe more appropriate for the lyrics. I’ll probably end up seeing Donnie Darko just because of this song.

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Original by The Beatles (written by George Harrison); covered by Jake Shimabukuro. For those who think the ukulele is not a real musical instrument, you have clearly never listened to Jake Shimabukuro. This arrangement is a piece of art. I’ve written about this before too. There’s a link to a video of this song there.

Wichita Lineman.” Original by Glen Campbell (written by Jimmy Webb); covered by R.E.M. I am not a big fan of Glen Campbell, but I have always loved this song. Mr. Spy has a recording of Jimmy Webb singing it himself with piano, which I really like. But the R.E.M. version off the Bittersweet Me EP, is my favorite. It’s enough off-kilter to keep the song interesting.

“Too Much Between Us.” Original by Procol Harum; covered by Jules Shear. This is a case where I’ve never actually heard the original, recorded by Procol Harum. It’s not for want of trying. I can’t seem to track down a recording. The first version of this song I heard was another cover, a bonus track on a CD of Peanuts music I got for AJ recorded by new age pianist George Winston as a piano solo. The chord changes really drew me in — they’re unusual and interesting. Jules Shear’s version is simple and spare. He’s accompanied by simple chords on the piano and guitar, with a few long tones from a pedal guitar, some light backing vocals, and a couple of sounds I’ve been unable to identify, in part because they’re so soft. The words are front and center. Everything grows out of them. I like Shear’s voice, too. A little gravelly, it contrasts well against the soft “oos” of the background vocals on the chorus.

“King of the Road.” Original by Roger Miller; covered by Rufus Wainwright and R.E.M. I have two versions of this song, one by Rufus Wainwright, one by R.E.M.. Wainwright gives it the character the song’s after. It sounds like a road song. But I really love the R.E.M. off the Dead Letter Office album. It’s something about the way this recording is mike, the slightly off-kilter pitch and the way it sounds like they’re not sure what song they’re going to sing when they start. It sounds like it’s the dance in the high school gym and it’s two in the morning and there are only a few people left propping each other up on the dance floor, but the band, though tired, isn’t ready to call it a night. If truth be told, though, my favorite version of the song was recorded by Mr. Spy on my answering machine when we were first dating. He called back three times to get the whole song on there. I saved it for years until a power outage erased it.

“Somebody to Love.” Originally recorded by Queen; covered by the cast of Glee. Okay, here’s an embarrassing fact. I first heard this song as sung by Ann Hathaway in Ella Enchanted, which I watched by myself with no children in tow. Ann does a fair job, but she’s no singer. But I liked the song and was surprised to find the original was by Queen. I can’t imagine how I’d never heard it before. Queen’s version is (surprise!) an overblown blowsy arrangement in a pseudo-gospel style. The Glee version makes it because Lea Michele has an incredible voice. Strangely, the Glee arrangement sounds as if it might have been inspired by the Ann Hathaway version. Or maybe there are just so many things you can do with a song like this one, that’s based on vocal harmony.

“Take Me to the River.” Originally by Al Green; covered by Talking Heads. I have both of these versions (many others have covered this tune as well). There’s no touching Al Green. It’s a classic. But the Talking Heads is vintage 80s, and for me that’s worth a lot, if only for the memories of a party one night at a friend’s Amh3rst dorm that was pure exuberance. Or maybe that was just beer.

“Why Does the Sun Shine?” Original by Hy Zaret and Lou Singer; covered by They Might Be Giants. This is another case where I heard the cover first. They Might Be Giants stays very true to the spirit of the 1959 original, as you can hear here. I picked up this tune for AJ during his space craze, but I’ve kept it because I like it too.

“Janine.” Originally by Soul Coughing; covered by Mike Doughty. Okay, this isn’t exactly a cover in the strictest sense, seeing as Mike Doughty was a key member of Soul Coughing. But this live solo acoustic version off The Gambler EP is actually quite different, less moody, more appealing. The girl crooning the lemon tree song into the answering machine on the original always irritated me. She’s not in this version, and the song’s the better for it, and also for the interaction between Doughty and his audience, who appear to be standing on the street outside Mike Doughty concert.

“Helter Skelter.” Originally by the Beatles; covered by The Bobs. This song off the Beatles’ White Album has been covered by many, but I love The Bobs’ version best for the vocal pyrotechnics erupt when you turn the instrumentals into a cappella vocals. It was even better live.

Bali Ha’i.” Originally from Rodgers & Hamerstein’s South Pacific; covered by Frank Sinatra. Okay, this kind of falls in the area I said I wasn’t going to cover, but it’s just such a fabulous version of this song — Ukeleles! Singing in Hawaiian! And a young, very croony Frank! What’s not to love?

“Take a Bow.” Original by Rihanna; covered by the cast of Glee. This is probably the only song on here where I really can’t stand the original version. It’s not a well-written song. But Lea Michele sells it, as I’ve written about here.

“Hallelujah.” Original by Leonard Cohen; covered by k.d. lang. This may be my most favorite song, as a song. But the perfect recording has not yet been made. It’s got to be one of the most covered songs in history. I’ve tried many on, but none gets at what I want to hear. The k.d. lang version comes close, though. I know many others who prefer the Jeff Buckley version, which I hear more often in soundtracks (The West Wing comes to mind). But k.d. lang gets the words better. I’ve written about this song a few times before too. Here is a post about a misguided sermon based on the song. Here is a post about an adventure I had one night that got its title from the song. It’s probably my favorite post I’ve ever written.

Tell me about your favorite cover songs.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Ron permalink
    November 10, 2009 10:16 pm

    Red Rubber Ball, originally sung by Cyrkle, covered by Simon and Garfunkel live in the late 1960s, with just two voices and an acoustic guitar: better than the pop version. Cyrkle was managed by Brian Epstein, of all people, by the way. The twist is that Paul Simon actually wrote Red Rubber Ball, but S & G never recorded it.

  2. November 10, 2009 10:32 pm

    I knew you’d come up with a good list!

    I almost put “Mad World” on my own list – yet another case where the cover is the first version people think of.

    I’m going to have to look for the Cowboy Junkies song – I have a few of the others you mentioned. Glad you decided to do this – and that you’re on the road to recovery, too!

  3. November 10, 2009 10:45 pm

    Shortly after I posted this, I caught my husband listening to a broadcast of a local folk music show dedicate to today’s anniversary of the wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald. I had no idea there were so many covers of that song. Now I’ve got more to explore. I’m generally interested in covers, I think because I’m interested in the impulse that makes someone want to perform someone else’s song in a field where original songs are the norm (in classical music, of course, it’s comparatively rare for the composer to be the performer). My favorite covers offer a clear point of view on the original — a new take, a sense of nostalgia — but something that makes it worth hearing again.

  4. November 11, 2009 1:08 am

    For a mix trade, I made a mix with 5 CDs of cover songs. Some of the more interesting were:

    Yes – I See You (Byrds cover)
    Yes – Every Little Thing (Beatles cover)
    Jayhawks – Bad Time (Grand Funk cover)
    Husker Du – Eight Miles High (Byrds cover)
    Emma – Urge Overkill (Hot Chocolate cover)
    Wuthering Heights – White Flag (Kate Bush cover)
    Move On Up – The Jam (Curtis Mayfield cover)
    Luka – The Lemonheads (Suzanne Vega cover)
    This Flight Tonight – Nazareth (Joni Mitchell cover)
    Diamonds & Rust – Judas Priest (Joan Baez cover)
    So Into You – Shudder To Think (Atlanta Rhythm Section cover)
    Symphony For Eleanor – Ides Of March (covering Eleanor Rigby)
    Wicked Messenger – The Faces (Dylan cover)
    Cold Turkey – The Godfathers (John Lennon cover)
    Sgt. Pepper – Jimi Hendrix (live, recorded the day AFTER it was released!)

    And of course, the Meat Purveyors’ Madonna Trilogy!

  5. November 11, 2009 8:06 am

    How could I forget the Meat Purveyors doing Madonna? That’s one of my all-time favorite covers (for those unfamiliar, it’s a medley of Madonna songs rendered in bluegrass style). And along those lines, I also love The Lost Fingers’ various covers done in Django Reinhardt style. Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean and Soft Cell’s Tainted Love are my two favorites.

  6. freshhell permalink
    November 11, 2009 10:08 am

    Oh, I love Soft Cell’s Tainted Love. I can hear it in my head right now. I have many favorite covers but they aren’t coming to mind at the moment. I’ll have to rummage around in that drawer in my brain soon.

  7. crankygirl permalink
    November 11, 2009 12:40 pm

    I love Bonnie Raitt’s cover of Angel from Montgomery and numerous covers of Jolene (those by female singers).

    One of my all time faves is Famous Blue Raincoat covered by Jennifer Warnes, which is far better than Leonard Cohen’s original. I also prefer Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah to LC’s original.

  8. freshhell permalink
    November 11, 2009 3:46 pm

    Oh, and for some reason, Red was singing “Hallelujah” last night at dinner. The hymn, not the Cohen song (I prefer the kd lang version).

  9. November 11, 2009 3:54 pm

    Bonnie Raitt doing Angel from Montgomery is one I missed too. I purposely skipped the several Jolenes on my iPod under the folk music rule above. Rhonda Vincent’s my favorite there. Maybe Red really liked dinner? I have a feeling I’d prefer her covers of just about any song.

  10. freshhell permalink
    November 11, 2009 4:37 pm

    You would. Maybe I can get her to sing on video one day. I think they sing songs a lot in her class because she’s always singing some new song that is ABC oriented or number oriented. Music is in her bones.

  11. crankygirl permalink
    November 12, 2009 11:45 am

    Jolene was written by Dolly Parton in the 70s–does it really qualify as a folk song? By that definition anything by Dylan or Leonard Cohen should be a folk song also.

  12. November 12, 2009 1:19 pm

    I love this post. I think I would love hanging out with you. I’ve had “do cover song post” in the back of my head for like two years. I have 40-odd versions of Silent Night among thousands of Christmas songs, and seven of Hallelujah. (And I love Glee too and I hope to hell that the DVR recorded it last night.)

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