Cover songs can go one of two ways. Stargroves’ cover of Stars’ “What the Snowman Learned About Love” goes the good way. This new collection of New York City musicians, led by singer/songwriter Teddy Watson, took on Stars’ folk/electronica song, and while keeping its innate structure, transformed the arrangement to include a large collection of instruments. This engaging amalgamation of sound makes Stargoves’ version a true tour de force, and, in my opinion, on par with the original – which I am including below this paragraph.
The cover also helps introduce the band, whose first Youtube video is this piece. The band was in the recording studio during the summer with producer Jeremy Sklarsky (Freelance Whales), and they plan on releasing some singles in the next few months. If this cover is any indication, this a band you are going to be hearing a lot more about. The music is skilled, passionate, and exciting. Here is the line-up that you see in the video:
Teddy Watson: banjo, guitar, vocals
Enrico De Trizio: keyboard, synth, accordion
Bryan Percivall: bass, backing vocals
Charlie Rauh: electric guitar, backing vocals
Oskar Häggdahl: drums
Jesse Stacken: toy piano
Concetta Abbate: violin, viola, mandolin
George Lykogiannis: harmonium
Sarah Goldstone: melodica
And the video:
First off, I respect any song that begins with an accordion, which is awesome. The song picks up with banjo, upright bass, viola, keys, drums, and an odd consortium of other instruments. The created sound is original and attractive. Watson’s voice is smooth, lullaby-esque, and pleasant to listen to. The talent just effuses from the video. A skillful cover, and a great indication of things to come for a band I am now quite excited to follow!
Why does Coldplay get such a bad rap? It’s an odd phenomenon. I’ve heard a lot of “old” Coldplay fans say that current albums have become loud, mainstream messes, and thus they have been turned off by the band. You see, I actually see it differently. I think Coldplay is a perfect example of a band that can bend mainstream music to fit their own brand of piano-infused spacious rock. I think they have found a way to be mainstream relevant (duets with Jay Z and Rhianna, for example), and still extraordinarily talented. Since 1996, Coldplay has been creating infectious pop/rock tunes, and they have gained a growing following that mixes young and old listeners. Their music is enjoyable and marketable. We should be commending them, not censuring them.
I will be making the traffic-fueled trip from Long Island to New Jersey tonight to see Coldplay on night one of their two-day sojourn at the Izod center. I have peeked at the set-lists of recent performances, and they perform a mix of material from their new album Mylo Xyloto and some staples like “Fix You,” “The Scientist,” and “Clocks.” I wonder if they might change it up a little bit since they are performing two nights. As long as they play my favorite Coldplay song, “The Scientist,” I will be happy.
To prepare myself for the concert tonight, I’ve been listening to some Coldplay songs (even though it does seem rather ridiculous because I am going to hear them all again later). As I was listening to “Fix You,” I came across an excellent cover performed by Boyce Avenue, a band of three multi-instrumentalist brothers from Florida. They play this cover of “Fix You” with Tyler Ward, and demonstrate excellent vocal harmonies. And, damn, it doesn’t matter who performs it, that climaxing guitar riff in the middle of the song is so incredible. It was really a strike of genius from Coldplay. Chris Martin, lead vocalist of Coldplay, wrote this lyric for his wife, actress Gwyneth Paltrow, when her father died. He has called the song, “the most important song we’ve ever written.”
Let’s start this post off on a positive note. There are a lot of good cover songs out there. The formula for creating a good cover song is simple. Take the original song, transform it minimally, and voila, recycled music. If you look at some of the greatest covers ever, you come up with a list of artists who covered other artists within the realm of a similar genre. There are certainly exceptions to the rule, but with said exceptions the cover artist is usually quite talented (i.e. Johnny Cash covering NIN’s “Hurt”) and the song itself can be stripped to its bare bones and sound good (i.e. Johnny Cash covering NIN’s “Hurt”). Or, on the other hand, a song already bare, with let’s say solo acoustic backing, can be spruced up a bit and made into a fuller, more extraordinary piece (i.e. “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix, from Bob Dylan).
With covers, though, one thing generally remains essential. The performer covering the song is not only talented, but also a multi-faceted artist. One-trick ponies perform miserable covers. So, when, for example, a screechy rock band covers a folk artist (see below) or a voluptuous country star covers a rock band (Dolly Parton doing “Stairway to Heaven”), things can go bad. And like spoiled milk, when a cover goes bad, it’s really bad.
And, despite the fact that most bands have been guilty of it (see song two sentences ago), we are not talking about musicians who steal music and rearrange it because of creative laziness, musical greed, or unconscious “My Sweet Lord” moments (sorry George). That’s not a cover. That’s theft.
With this all in mind, I am going to provide you with five examples of vomit-inducing music covers, and I want you to tell me what is the worst cover of all time. Are there other awful covers? Yes. Many. Including some truly miserable Miley Cyrus “inspiration” covers that includes one of “Smells like Teen Spirit” which is mind-blowingly terrible, but I am going to let that sit there and age a bit before we conclude whether that was just a bad joke. If you like a cover song on this list, I apologize for verbally defecating on a song you enjoy. This is clearly just my (and many other’s) opinion. But I urge you, tell me why the cover is good. Seriously, because I think it is awful and destroys the original. A full list of the songs with some unflattering descriptions is below the poll jump. Read and vote! What’s the worst?
Britney Spears (The Rolling Stones) – “Satisfaction”
You know, for the first 30 seconds of the song it isn’t that bad. Remember, we are talking historically bad here so not that bad is still awful. There just isn’t much there. In a way, it seems like she is going to turn the song into one of her modern-day libidinous sex-slave pieces that paint her out like she is a voracious nymphomaniac. And then the song passes the 30 second mark and, well, listen. Why? Britney? Why? Did Mick Jagger insult you? The cover eliminates Keith Richards’ uber-famous riff and turns the famous rock song into a pop debacle that is not even good for Britney Spears standards. Have you stopped listening yet? The song somehow is more than four minutes long. I’ll never know how it ends.
Madonna (Don McLean) – “American Pie”
Madonna and Don McLean go together like Cheerios and jalapeno peppers – they don’t – yet the pop diva with the hilariously fake British accent decided to take on this American classic. By take on, I mean burn. In a similar manner to Spears’ awful cover of “Satisfaction,” Madonna’s “American Pie” starts off decently, with only a slight echo effect on her voice. And then, what the hell is that synth. Look, I totally understand changing up a song, and you don’t have to sit down with only an acoustic guitar and bang out the entire hit, but a synth only makes a song that deserves so much more sound like an 80’s sunshine track mixed with creepy Eiffel 65-like echoes and monotone Madonna plugging away at only one damn verse and the beginning and ending. I guess we should be thanking the Kabbalah that she didn’t record anymore of this washed-down piece of a junk cover.
Limp Bizkit (The Who) – “Behind Blue Eyes”
This one is more difficult to hate on at first, because Limp Bizkit doesn’t ruin it until later. The song is one of the Who’s most raw works, and the initial shock that Limp Bizkit, who, if you remember correctly, told us to shove a cookie up our collective yeah, would actually cover a serious song is odd enough. But initially the song is quite stripped down and actually halfway okay. It’s not a great cover. The vocals are nothing special. Vocal effects make it sound better, but, hey, everyone does that now’a’days. And then 2:30 comes along and you just shake your head at what the hell the band was thinking when they decided to put a robotic voice over an eerie whistle. They actually destroyed their already pretty bad cover.
Guns N’ Roses (Bob Dylan) – “Knockin on Heaven’s Door”
Guns N’ Roses’ cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin on Heaven’s Door” comes to us with more than eight million views on YouTube and more than 30,000 likes. Statistics like that make me question my faith in our population of music listeners. I’ve talked about why Guns N’ Roses’ cover of Dylan is overproduced garbage in the past. Allow me to copy and paste my thoughts on this from an article I wrote that you can view here.
“In 1987, the prototypical hair metal band decided they would start using it in their live sets. The song was then poisoned by the melodramatic, hyperbolic fingers of Axl Rose and a song loved for its downtrodden seriousness became the toy of unnecessary and cocky bedizenment. Guns & Roses destroyed a perfectly good song. Rose’s horrendous voice is so drawn out and fake it kills the song’s wonderment. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is somber. Guns & Roses’ version is an arena rock hugger-mugger that is vomit inducing.”
Shakira (AC/DC) – “Back in Black”
Shakira’s “Back in Black” is one of the worst things I’ve ever heard. There, I said it. She gyrates her way to an over-indulgent, incomprehensible, sheep-like, faux-jazz to power rock anthemic version of AC/DC’s hit. Now, don’t get me wrong, AC/DC was every bit difficult to understand, but their rock saturated original is purposeful. Shakira sounds like she just took seven shots and got up on a stand-up table at a bar/grill to sing and dance without music while her poor friends stare on in pain. Well, there goes Shakira again – someone should probably tell her to stop stepping on the nachos. And every time she sings black she sounds like a lamb out to slaughter. Stop it. Stop putting on the fake quiver in your voice. Your vibrato sounds like a farm animal. If she is back in black, I want to be as far away from her as humanly possible.
Have any other horrible covers in mind? Let us know about them in the comment section!
Do you ever happen to catch yourself traveling to the North Country fair? Happens to me all the time. It is a lyrical sojourn though, one that only lasts for the three minutes of Bob Dylan’s eloquent portrayal of love and loss. “Girl from the North Country” is one of Dylan’s most masterful songs – and this man is the master of songs. So that must mean that this song is masterful on top of masterful. I’m going to stop writing master. You catch my drift, though, right? Dylan sang of the North Country fair, released it in 1963 as the second track on his second album TheFreewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and boy have people remembered him!
There is a special canorous draw to Dylan’s odes to English folk. His authenticity and skill for folk music is evident in all of his folky endeavors, but he approaches English folk with such immaculate melodic splendor that it is tough to listen and not be moved. His vocal is tender and understated and I love that. His lightly plucked guitar tells the story that he effortlessly sings. While Dylan is not English, he is pretty much a musical chameleon and he does English folk well. In a way, it reminds me of how Nick Drake approached his hometown genre. Drake played some of the most beautiful English folk and if you have never heard of him please check out his music because he is wonderful.
There is Dylan singing his song if you needed any proof.
I am posting about “Girl from the North Country” today because I wanted to highlight some covers of Dylan’s classic that evoke the same emotion in me. Both examples are soft, almost subtle, versions that wash over listeners with warmth and feeling. The first comes from the grand harmonizers – Crosby Stills & Nash.
It is ethereal, atmospheric, and, well, classic CSN. No one takes a song and creates harmonies like CSN. It is just a pleasure to listen to them at work. And I’m sure you are enjoying it right now.
Eddie Vedder’s version is true to Dylan’s classic. And I am a bit surprised with how much I love this version. I believe it is because Vedder contains himself. He keeps his voice authentic and almost timid. We know he can be grungy, but, instead he teases us with a vocal sincerity that is much respected. Excellent version by Vedder.
And, before I let you all go today, I have to give you the best version of this song. Bob Dylan. Johnny Cash. The Girl From The North Country. Magic.
In 1968, The Beatles released “Lady Madonna,” a short, fast-paced groove about an overworked mother. It was written primarily by Paul McCartney, but credited to Lennon/McCartney. John Lennon did help with some of the lyric. In typical Beatles’ fashion, the song reached #1 in the UK and #4 in the U.S., and interestingly, was the Beatles’ last release on Parlophone. The Beatles would release “Hey Jude” on Apple Records a few months after “Lady Madonna.” Has anyone ever suggested that perhaps the Beatles were just too good. Perhaps they were all truly musical aliens, intergalactic hit machines. Well, some band had to be the greatest band to ever play, right?
Anyway, I mention Lady Madonna in this version of “Great Moments in Music Cover History,” not because it’s a cover (which it is not), and not even primarily because it spawned several covers, but because it was inspired by a musical legend, Fats Domino. Yes, so I should perhaps title the category as “Great Moments in Music Inspiration History,” but you’ll all see how the covers fit into this in a few words.
“‘Lady Madonna’ was me sitting down at the piano trying to write a bluesy boogie-woogie thing,” said McCartney in a 1994 interview. “It reminded me of Fats Domino for some reason, so I started singing a Fats Domino impression. It took my voice to a very odd place.”
You can hear the blues piano inspiration in this song and Fats Domino was such a champion of the burgeoning rock/piano genre. McCartney was also inspired by Humphrey Lyttelton‘s “Bad Penny Blues.” The beginning piano riff is somewhat similar to the piece. Take a listen:
The reason this fits into the cover category is because Fats Domino actually covered “Lady Madonna.” It’s sort-of like an ironic twist. McCartney thinks about how it would sound if Fats Domino was playing the piano, and then Fats gives McCartney the ultimate compliment and re-records the song. Here is the Fats version:
Not bad. The Fats flavor is cool. Plus, listening to Fats’ accent during the piece feels right. McCartney and Fats should perform this song together. That would be awesome.
Now, just for giggles, here is another cover of the song by…Elvis Presley! It is from a 1970 rare recording session (where he also performs “Got My Mojo Working”). He is obviously having a lot of fun with it. He doesn’t even know all the words.