Tuesday, November 6, 2007

KQED Music: Covered Up

When it comes to music, "authenticity" is a hugely overrated concept. Despite being widely considered an expression of praise, the idea carries with it a lot of baggage including: the notions that artists can only play types of music that match their background or upbringing; that commercial success negates artistic achievement; or that you aren't a proper artist unless you write your own songs.

Which is all clearly crap. If it were true, then Elvis would have remained just another country singer, and Eminem would probably be stacking shelves in Detroit right now. Sgt. Pepper wouldn't have meant a thing, nor would anything Radiohead released after The Bends. And, crucially in the context of this column, Aretha Franklin would never have recorded "Say a Little Prayer," nor Jimi Hendrix "All Along the Watchtower," Soft Cell "Tainted Love," Jeff Buckley "Hallelujah," Johnny Cash "Hurt" (along with most of the rest of his final five albums)... and so on. The list of great cover versions is as long as it is varied.

I'm not talking about lazy copies here, but versions of songs that bring something new to the original. This can be dramatic or subtle, but the essential fact is a good cover version can force you to reconsider the original entirely, and create something completely new and surprising in the process. Cover versions are fundamental to the fabric of modern music, helping artists to create the hybrid genres and new ideas that keep pushing things forward.

Not convinced? Then here are some songs to persuade you that first isn't always best:

"Just" by Mark Ronson featuring Alex Greenwald (originally by Radiohead)
Mark Ronson's recent album of covers, Version, produced two standout tracks: a stomping, Amy Winehouse-fueled Motown take on The Zutons' "Valerie," and "Just," which proves that jewels of pure pop can be found in the most unexpected places. Phantom Planet vocalist Greenwald may sound like he's competing in a Thom Yorke karaoke contest, but Radiohead's anguished original is nevertheless transformed by its new horn-drenched backing into something not just upbeat but also downright funky.

"Guns of Brixton" by Nouvelle Vague (The Clash)
French covers-only act Nouvelle Vague takes a different tack from the dancefloor-friendly Ronson by creating mellowed-out, bossa nova versions of punk and new wave classics. Their smoky, sultry sashay through The Clash's "Guns of Brixton" (from their self-titled debut), for example, ignores any punk beligerence in the original and instead highlights the song's underlying sense of creeping menace.

"Straight Outta Compton" by Nina Gordon (NWA)
While your first reaction to hearing this might be to laugh in disbelief, ex-Veruca Salt member Gordon's delicate, acoustic, folk-core cover of the original NWA classic is also strangely beguiling. We have become so inured to all sorts of violent and profane words coming out of the mouths of rappers. But, by singing "My AK-47 is a tool / So don't make me act the motherf--king fool" with a sweet, melodic voice, Gordon makes the words sound both more innocent and more shocking at the same time. My only gripe is why she didn't record "Folk the Police" instead.

"Break My Body" by Hanne Hukkelberg (Pixies)
This is an object lesson in how to change the style of a song so much it's almost unrecognizable, but also stay true to the spirit of the original. Despite being a huge Pixies fan, the first time I heard Norwegian singer Hanne Hukkelberg's version of this Surfer Rosa track, I couldn't work out where on earth I knew it from until the chorus arrived one-and-a-half minutes in. (What's even more surprising is that I did exactly the same thing the second time I heard it, but perhaps that says more about my memory than anything else.) It may not howl as loudly as the original, but this whisper-quiet rendering somehow packs the same emotional punch.

"In the Ghetto" by Candi Staton (Elvis Presley)
Despite the fact that for years this was my favorite Elvis track, Candi Staton's version has a power that makes you forget all about that whatshisname from Memphis. Unfortunately, the link above only gives you a sample of the song, but I cannot recommend the album it comes from, Candi Staton (a collection of her pre-disco, southern soul recordings released in 2004), highly enough. It also features a great version of "Stand by Your Man." (Of course, the original "In the Ghetto" was actually written by Mac Davis, but first recorded by Presley).

"Living on a Prayer" by Octoberfest Oompah Band (Bon Jovi)
This tongue-in-cheek instrumental track by London's self-described "newest, freshest, most temulent Oompah ensemble" somehow transforms the overblown hair-rock original into something much more poignant. The new version ends up sounding more like the gypsy stylings of Eastern Europhiles Beirut than a song written by New Jersey's most famous poodle-perms.

"Song 2wo" by Earl Zinger (Blur)
When this dub-heavy, reggae transformation of the "woo-hoo" song was first released, it sounded so old school that some people began wondering if Blur's original was really the cover version. But, despite many self-propogated rumors to the contrary, it turned out that Earl Zinger was a modern-day alias of ex-Galliano mainman Rob Gallagher. Which is a shame, as the whole thing would have been much more entertaining the other way round.

Next week, Dan Brown will re-write this article to highlight how a shady cabal of Catholics are to blame for Willie Nelson's 2005 reggae album.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.