30 More Songs: Day 1: Favorite cover version of a non-obscure song — The Lost Fingers: Tainted Love
I love cover songs. I have dozens of them. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if you counted up each individual title in my iTunes file, I have multiple versions of at least half of the songs on there.
Okay, so maybe they’re not all technically “cover” songs. In some of my favorite genres, they don’t call them cover songs. I have multiple versions of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, for instance, but no one calls them cover songs. I have at least four jazz versions of Someday my Prince will Come. And don’t even get me started on the Christmas carols.
So what makes a cover a cover? Well, it’s usually got to be a rock song. A cover song demands a genre that prizes composer/performer originality, otherwise the concept just isn’t notable. There aren’t rock standards in the same way that there are jazz standards. The rock musicians we prize most write their own tunes. And those that don’t tend to keep that fact under the rug.
In rock, a cover song is usually seen as a tribute to the originator of the song. It’s a song so good, someone else just had to play it. But what I really like about covers is counterpoint. I love the way the versions bounce off of each other. A good cover lets you hear the original differently.
Some covers don’t get it. I’m thinking, for instance, of Pete Townshend’s cover of the English’ Beat’s “Save it for Later,” which doesn’t really change much. It’s a case where I much prefer the original.
He’s too earnest. He adds filagree to his chords that show off his guitar but detract from the raw edge of the song. I feel like he doesn’t understand what the song’s about. It’s too melancholy. It’s lost its reckless past. And at the same time, he doesn’t change enough. He keeps the sax, the backing vocals. He keeps the tempo, but dulls its edge.
And here’s the Beat:
Where Pete’s given up, the Beat is holding on by its fingernails. It’s a song I have played over and over for 25 years at least.
Pearl Jam can make me nuts, but they at least understand what this song is about:
They’ve got the right kind of fancy guitar work for this song. They don’t cling to the instrumentation and they know what to do with the riff.
But sometimes someone can take a song and make it sound completely different. Probably the most popular example I can think of is Gary Jules’ take on Tears for Fears’ “Mad World.”
Here’s the original:
And here’s Jules’ version, as it appeared in the film Donnie Darko.
This is a case where I think the remaker saw something in the original song that was lurking in the background and brought it forward. In my opinion, this is the best kind of cover. The songs are quite different, but I like them both because they both have something to say.
My favorite cover of this type is probably too obscure for this meme: Jules Shear’s cover of Procol Harum’s “Too Much Between Us.”
Here’s the original:
Shear, sadly, doesn’t seem to be on youtube, but I urge you to seek his version out, because it’s gorgeous.
Strangely, I discovered this song through a cover by New Age pianist George Winston, that was a bonus track on his CD Linus and Lucy, which I bought for AJ:
I don’t always care for Winston’s simplicity, but here his spare arrangement brings out the essential elements of the song and lets the heartbreaking chord sequence in the chorus speak for itself.
But a lot of my favorite covers are genre jumpers. These days that mostly means bluegrass covers of rock songs, which entertain me greatly. I’m a big fan of Sarah Jarosz’s cover of the Decembrists’ “Shankhill Butchers,” although that’s maybe not such a big genre leap:
Jarosz’s cover of Radiohead’s The Tourist is perhaps a better example.
Am I trying to learn this on mando? You’d better believe it.
My favorite in the bluegrass as rock song category is The Meat Purveyor’s Madonna Trilogy, an amazing bluegrass medley of Like a Virgin, Burning Up, and Lucky Star. This sadly does not seem to exist on the internet, but if you ever get the chance to hear it, believe me, it’s worth the price of admission.
But my favorite genre jumping cover band is The Lost Fingers, a French Canadian band that plays rock songs a la Django Reinhardt (hence their name). It’s hard for me to pick just one. I thought about Billie Jean.
Or Pump up the Jam
I could have Rickrolled you.
But my favorite is Tainted Love. Here’s Soft Cell’s original:
And here is (are?) the Lost Fingers:
What’s your favorite cover song?