February 7, 2011
Originally published on chriscocca.com
Cover songs are forever. My guess is that the second song ever performed was a cover of the first. Some of these cover songs are inspired, many are horrifying. Artists who cover well-known songs are disadvantaged in that they are immediately judged against the original, though the instant recognition of a popular cover song often paves the way for radio play and concert sing-alongs. The best covers may pay tribute or put a new stamp on an old standard. The worst are soul-crushing cash-ins. Here are just a few of my personal favorites and least favorites. Feel free to add your own. But for the sake of my sanity, try not to defend Sheryl Crow.
Part II: The Gold
Heart – “Love Reign O’er Me” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQhAipNH0lM
This is my Johhny Cash “Hurt.” That is, this is the cover in which I really liked the original, then fell in love with the cover and couldn’t even listen to the original without contempt any longer.
The Who may have been relatively embarrassing geezers at last year’s Super Bowl, but when I saw them in ’02, Roger Daltry still had the pipes to nail the “looooooooooovvvveeeeeee” crescendo as if his drummer and bassist were alive. Then Ann Wilson had to come and just crush the whole thing. Wilson’s voice adds a depth to the entire song that makes Daltry look like an imposter in comparison.
Disturbed – “Land of Confusion” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6KXgjLqSTg
Nothing will ever terrify a child of the 80s the way Genesis’ “Land of Confusion” did. With its deranged Reagan puppets that looked just enough like the actual Reagans to frighten pre-pubescents, “Land of Confusion” would be memorable even if the song weren’t. And I’m still not sure why puppet Genesis is funny whereas puppet Reagans probably sent more kids into their parents rooms at night than the bogey man and Freddy Kreuger combined.
Disturbed, not a band one would typically consider subtle, succeed in their rendition by simply amplifying the heavy guitar licks of the original, which in turn makes the dystopic lyrics stand out more. It helps that, unlike many of least favorite cover nominees, Distrurbed was not forced to heteronormatize the song by changing any he/she pronouns. After all, this world “we” live in, and both man and woman will one day be subjected to the great flood the way the puppet Reagans were in ’86.
Disturbed singer David Draiman gives his typical tortured pet performance on “Land of Confusion,” barking through each line like a dog running to the end of a leash. I’m sure this is enough to make many Phil Collins fans unhappy. To be sure, Drummond’s growl scat is plenty annoying, especially when he’s offering the kind of mad at your dad garbage that Distrurbed often deals in, but when he adds asides like “ooh-ah-ah-ah-ah” or, as in “Land of Confusion,” “nyah-ah-ah” it kind of sounds like he’s possibly, maybe, just a little bit, making a gag of his over-the-top angsty rottweiler act.
He is joking, right? Kind of?
Jeffrey Gaines – “In Your Eyes” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7WtavVdBCk
The history of “In Your Eyes,” at least, according to Wikipedia, says a lot about the song. Written by Peter Gabriel, the song was first released in 1986, then again in 1989 after it was featured in the movie Say Anything. Gaines recorded a stripped down version as a B side in 1992, then re-released two different versions of it in 2001. Herein lies the strength of the song, especially Gaines’ version—its timelessness. For this ballad about a guy who sees churches in eyeballs, Gabriel abandoned the giddiness that made 80s hits like “Sledgehammer” and “Shock the Monkey” a lot of fun, replacing it with heart-felt lyrics that are just complicated enough to not scream prom song. The original has some world music instrumentation and African yodeling (that exists, right?), which Gaines’ cover does not. See, this is the type of song that thrives on acoustic interpretation. Minus the bits of Toto-sounding keyboard and backup dancers, Gaines’ take lets his voice and the basics of the song do all the work. He proves that “In Your Eyes” does not need world music or exotic stage shows to succeed; its greatest asset is the core of the song itself.
Gaines stopped by my dear old alma mater while touring the college circuit back in ’98, and my then-roommate went to the show, hanging around afterwards just to get Gaines’ autograph for some girl he had an unrequited crush on. That night, I mistook his nightstand for the men’s room, spraying his Jeffrey Gaines autographed poster with recycled Natty Light. Sorry, Tom.
Best Bad Cover
Guns ‘n’ Roses – “Sympathy for the Devil” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6UsdiJldmo
In the interest of full disclosure, I am an unabashed GnR diehard. But I like their version of the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” much more than their more revered covers like “Live and Let Die” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
What makes this surprising is that the band itself hates this cover. Recorded for 1994′s Interview With a Vampire soundtrack, “Sympathy” is the last song released by Axl, Slash, Duff, and co. The band hated each other so much at this point, they couldn’t even be in the studio together when they recorded it. Slash said his own rendition of “Sympathy” (ok, his band’s; rumor is Slash’s guitar solo was redubbed by Axl loyalist Paul Huge) sounds like a band breaking up.
But that’s kind of cool, in its own way. A band of junkies covers a song by an older band of junkies featuring Satan as narrator. I’d say there’s a game of one-upmanship going on here, and Guns may have just topped the Stones in debauched sinfulness. Take that one to heart, Keith and Mick.
Oh yeah, and Mick Jagger never could sing. So there’s that.
Ugly Kid Joe – “Cats in the Cradle”
Not sure which list this belongs on, but it deserves mention.