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Top 10 Covers Better Than the Original

By The Staff | 22 November 2005

Covers are a fine art. When done wrong, and they usually are, they tend to either just be dull rehashing following too closely to the source material (every Beatles cover band ever) or complete appropriations that can take the air out of even the best of compositions (Colin Meloy’s disastrous take on “Bridges & Balloons”; Chistopher O’Reilly’s life). When done right, covers can capture the best of both artists. This is where you get things like Elliott Smith playing Big Star’s “Thirteen,” Radiohead taking a break from being serious with Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does it Better” (a Bond theme no less), or Yo La Tengo’s amazing renditions of Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War.” The following are some covers that we thought up that manage to actually supercede their originals. It’s by no means a complete list (email us with more suggestions), but it covers the really notable ones from the all-important 1989-2005 period.

*****

10. The Futureheads: “Hounds of Love”

from The Futureheads (Sire; 2004)

Fourteen tracks into their debut record, the Futureheads deliver the most absolutely stunning pop song of 2004. The thing is that it doesn’t entirely fit the rest of the record: not only is it just too good to believe, it has a sort of bounding grandiosity that none of the other tracks, with the possible exception of “Man Ray,” really go for.

Oh yeah, and it’s by Kate Bush, which is just fuckin’ weird when you come right down to it. I actually managed to find a used copy of the Bush album Hounds of Love on vinyl, but I’m a bastard and not really into kitsch, so I just downloaded her version of the song instead. Despite having vague memories of The Red Shoes, my exposure to Bush’s music is pretty limited, so it surprised me listening to her version of “Hounds” just how good it is. The thing is that the Futureheads version is even better. With those crisp, triumphant, guitars, enormously propulsive drumming, and impossible vocal harmonies, the ‘Heads deliver the goods like no others. I fully expect either a cover of “Rubberband Girl” next or Bush to take a crack at “Le Garage.”

-Peter Hepburn

*****

9. Galaxie 500: “Isn’t It a Pity”

from On Fire (Rykodisc; 1989)

Galaxie 500 was a great covers band for the same primary reason that Galaxie 500 was a great band: they completely owned their sound. Plus, they knew just what that sound could do to certain songs (and it surely didn’t hurt that they had impeccable taste). That being established, “Isn’t it a Pity” is their best cover. To more objectively explain, I suppose I could offer a thorough comparison of this gem’s cut to George Harrison’s original, but a comparison has little to do with why I am writing about the 500 version of “Isn’t it a Pity.” This isn’t just my favorite cover; the cover itself is one of my favorite tracks in the whole wide canon of tracks. As is usually the case with such superlatives, personal reasons are attached.

My ex-girlfriend, at the time pre-girlfriend, shared a theater directing class with me, and she asked me for a song to intro/outro the ten-minute play she had chosen. The play had something to do with relationships that should work, should but didn’t. I immediately thought of this cover. I played it for her. She used it. About a month later we coupled up. Then I moved to Los Angeles for a semester to study film. We broke up. I listened to this song a lot. While doing so, I occasionally sensed twinges in the vicinity of my heart. My betters told me, “Those are called feelings.”

Outside of abusing the avenue of criticism for mild self-therapy, the anecdote’s relevant because the dramatic subtext is the kind of stuff that makes up the plasma of “Isn’t it a Pity.” It’s simultaneously a love song, a break-up song and a “that’s-just-life” song. What’s astounding, though, is what happens when George Harrison’s sighing words are enveloped in Galaxie 500’s shining music, in Gibson-god Wareham’s cut-to-the-quick solos and Damon’s mini-triumph drum fills, when the song rockets up flames through clouds with the coda, “What a pity / What a pity / What a pity…” The song becomes more melancholy and brighter, its tone full of truth while bitterness and blame are somehow absent. I experienced what it is to care for someone far beyond myself, and I experienced what it is to be helpless before the end of that dream, and Galaxie’s “Isn’t it a Pity” proceeds just like the feeling that churns in my breast when I listen to it, a dirge and a celebration. It is better to have loved and lost not because we have at least done the first, but because we have done both, and in the process become more human.

-Chet Betz

*****

8. M. Ward: “Let’s Dance”

from The Transfiguration of Vincent (Merge; 2003)

Unlike say, Seu Jorge’s recent streak of fantastic re-workings of early-‘70s era Bowie tunes, Matt Ward chose to close out his spectacular The Transformation of Vincent with his take on a Bowie song from a decidedly trickier era. Now anyone with a clear understanding of the man’s work knows that Bowie after 1980 is probably pretty much worth avoiding. This was, after all, when Bowie was out dancing around in tights for Labyrinth. 1983’s Let’s Dance was no exception, and the title track is an overworked, callous, empty disco track.

Ward manages to reach in and pull the soul out of it, transforming it into a quiet acoustic tune. It’s startling hearing those words about “serious moonlight” delivered with Ward’s unerring sincerity, but he makes it work remarkably well. In the process he shows not only that he’s a hell of a musician but also that under all the plastic, pretense, and cocaine, Bowie did have something going on.

-Peter Hepburn

*****

7. Bjork: “Isobel (Deodato Mix)”

from Telegram (Elektra; 1997)

Eumir Deodato’s lasting contribution to the pop culture cannon is his 1972 reworking of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” a/k/a the Theme From ‘2001.’ Deodato brilliantly dumbed down the theme from Kubrick’s epic into a disco barnstromer overflowing with cheese; keeping Strauss’s dramatic string sample intact, but adding oodles of Fender Rhodes, chicken scratch guitar, and a funky drummer (Phish played this version to death in their heyday). His 1972 album Prelude also featured coke-spoon ready desecrations of Debussy and a broadway showtune from “Kiss Me, Kate.” Totally recommended to anyone who digs the music from “The Price is Right” or “A Fifth of Beethoven.”

So Deodato takes the somewhat awkward third single from Post and renders it completely swerve-worthy by treating it exactly like of one his early ‘70s tracks. He piles on congas, an insistent bassline, and funky wah-licks, ultimately turning the song into a bossanova groove that gives the Icelandic pixie a set of hips. Most of the remixes on Telegram suck, but I’d count this version of “Isobel” as infinitely finer than the original, and a staple of every “want to get to know you better” mix tape that I made in college.

-David Goldstein

*****

6. Tricky: “Black Steel”

from Maxinquaye (Island/4th & Broadway; 1995)

Coming off It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, Chuck D’s take on the prison-escape epic “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” is typically vicious, riding over a tense Bomb Squad beat that really can’t quite support its six-minute-plus run length. Coming seven years after the original, the version of “Black Steel” on Maxinquaye is nearly as long, but with Martina Topley-Bird taking vocal duties and with Tricky’s production genius riding underneath, the song takes on whole new dimensions. Tricky pumps the rubbery beat with punk guitar and an absolutely vicious drum track, changing the musical connections of the track as much as Topley-Bird does the sexual. As far as reinvention goes, Tricky’s take on “Black Steel” is nearly without equal.

-Peter Hepburn

*****

5. The Breeders: “Happiness is a Warm Gun”

from Pod (4AD/Elektra; 1990)

Contentious, I know, and I look forward to the hate mail, but listen to what the Breeders do with this thing. Pay attention and it’s not much different from the Beatles’ version, but where it’s different it’s better. Of course, it’s worth noting that this comes from the mouth of one whose favorite Beatles’ album is Abbey Road, and the Breeders’ cover could be “Warm Gun” as recorded during Abbey Road sessions: heavier, rawer and with steadier pacing. You thought it felt good before.

The carnal undertones of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” are so magnificently amplified when the titular lyric’s sung by a female in a flushed coo, in an embrace of lightly picked guitars, the “bang-bang, shoot-shoot” BGVs just hinting at the doo-wop flavor that the original took way overboard. Through the part transitions that were once disjointed and awkward, a new smoothness of motion and pauses for breath heave the arcing song to a higher climax. “Mother Superior jumped the gun”: the line repeats until the last two rounds come out with a feral grunt from the band and crashing drums. Before that, the guitars and bass paw in a chugging balance of give and take. It all starts with a soft come-on.

Yes, it all really started with Lennon’s genius songwriting and hooks, but the Breeders do what they should with a seminal song. They fashion it in their likeness, they make it more whole and more effective, and they bring it closer to what it really was in the first place: sexy.

-Chet Betz

*****

4. Sonic Youth: "Superstar"

from I Wish I Were A Carpenter (A&M; 1994)

By 1994 Sonic Youth had already made their lasting impact on the music world. Dropping Daydream Nation on a room full of unsuspecting executives, fusing attitude back into rock, and ‘redefining’ how Guitar Player looked at… guitar playing; ten year’s after their manifestation onto the scene the band finally had complete control over their creative future. They were the envy of every artist who saw merit as more important than financial gain. Their Sgt. Pepper’s was behind them. There were no rules left to break. Basically they were a body of people who could piss in the snow and call it gold.

On one note, the group’s downtrodden tenebrous cover of The Carpenters 1971 smash hit "Superstar" is a gargantuan disappointment. The story seemed all too perfect. The song, reportedly originally done in one take because Karen Carpenter was chafed about its somewhat suggestive lyrics, seemed to beg to be torn apart and rebuilt into some sort staggering, spewing deformity much in the same vein as their more blatantly ironic material ala “Master-Dik”. Instead, Kim and company elected to hit the road less traveled, opting for subtlety over balls to the wall belligerence. Emerging as the sleepy-faced crooner, Thurston put even his patience to the test, dawdling each line and dragging every syllable. Backed by an unusually restrained set of analogue keys, piano, acoustic guitar, and one big budget riff, at first glance the cover appeared almost too tongue in cheek. Where was the payoff in this overly attenuate in-joke? Not to be pigeon-holed, the band surprised even their most sermonizing fans. But was all that trouble really worth it in the end? On another note, this is Sonic Youth covering The Carpenters.

-Connor Morris

3. Jon Brion: “Voices”

from Meaningless (Self-released; 2001)

Anyone who’s seen Jon Brion play live can attest to his chameleon-like grasp of popular music. During one night at Largo last year, a fan called out “Dude Looks Like a Lady is a Tramp!” Brion retorted with something like “You’ve been thinking up that all week, haven’t you?” After pausing to recall the melody, he sat down at his piano and played an effortless combination of “The Lady Is a Tramp” and, uh, “Dude Looks Like Lady.”

Cheap Trick’s “Voices,” the only cover on his solo album Meaningless, fares no differently. Taking a four-minute tune and extending to past seven, Brion bathes the song in music boxes and his multi-tracked falsetto. The lyrics fit well with his usual themes of confusion and neurosis. “Hey, it’s me again,” he sings, and from the start there was never any doubt; like everything else he touches, the pop impresario makes the song utterly his own.

-David Greenwald

*****

2. Jeff Buckley: "Hallelujah"

from Grace (Columbia; 1994)

Another kind-of-obvious choice, practically coming down to an inane "John Cale or Jeff Buckley?" debate over stunning covers of Leonard Cohen’s sole ’80s masterpiece, "Hallelujah." And it’s not just that the song is brilliantly written and lends itself to vocalists who can easily sap out the seemingly endless emotional depth from such an infallible melody, either; more recent versions like Rufus Wainwright’s cover for Shrek sounded obese and oddly stale —- superfluous for all the reasons that Jeff Buckley’s cover, on his landmark debut Grace, lives up the track’s name.

Buckley does without the boisterous female choir that, along with the gaudy production, slightly set back Cohen’s version enough for a chilling version like this to top it, keeping the track to just clean, finger-picked electric guitar and unaccompanied, angelic vocals. The rest is really up to the songwriting, and the thing’s full of brilliant imagery and twists, like how he goes brilliantly meta by describing the harmonic progression ("the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift") as he’s singing it while still keeping the words thematically relevant, or, you know, the rest of these lyrics. Which, despite the enormous amount of religious imagery, if anyone’s still taking Cohen too literally, isn’t about religion (Cohen: "It’s a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way but with enthusiasm, with emotion"; he’d later go ahead and just change the lyrics —- "did my best, it wasn’t much / I couldn’t feel, so I learned to touch" —- to remove most of the Jewish references for Cohen Live).

Anyway, it’s really Buckley’s voice, as hymnal and assertingly romantic as the track demands, that triumphs it over Cale’s own (more vocally subdued, still as dramatic) gorgeous rendition, and over worthy performances since, like K.D. Lang’s shocking performance at least year’s Junos. It suits Buckley almost too well, which is probably why he chose to end each of his concerts with it, and why it’s still the overwhelming centerpiece of his debut.

-Scott Reid

*****

1.Cat Power “Bathysphere”

from What Would the Community Think? (Matador; 1996)

and

Cat Power: “I Found a Reason”

from The Covers Record (Matador; 2000)

Chan Marshall, beyond being just one of the hands-down best singer-songwriters of the last decade, also has managed to carve out a pretty significant catalogue of covers. Unlike Yo La Tengo, the other Matador-based indie rockers with a covers record (Fakebook), she also manages to make pretty much every one of the songs she covers better in the process. Her ability to find the middle ground between a straight-up rehashing and easy appropriation makes it nearly impossible to pick a favorite cover. So we didn’t.

Marshall has covered Smog on various occasions, and it’s a good matching. Bill Callahan’s stark, often strikingly beautiful songwriting plays well with Marshall’s sense of arrangement and vocal chops. Callahan’s fantastic take on “Bathysphere,” the opener to 1995’s Wild Love, went heavier on the production than much of the other material on the album. The simple backbeat, layers of synthesizers, and ominous string section all gave the track a dark beauty. For her version on What Would the Community Think,” Marshall took it the other way, focusing on Callahan’s lyrics and just playing a viciously angry acoustic guitar behind it. There’s something in her stark delivery that makes the song even darker and more beautiful than the Smog original.

Four years later, Marshall followed up her best album to date, Moon Pix, with a full-on covers album. I’d be curious to know if Matador was excited at the prospect or just somewhat nervous. Marshall certainly never backed away from taking on potentially volatile songs—opening the record with a brilliantly neutered version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” takes balls. While the album is quite consistent, if not a bit too set in the stripped-down guitar or piano approach, “I Found a Reason” just sort of towers above everything else. I would argue it’s the single most gorgeous piece of music she’s put to tape—the simple piano line moving ever-so-lazily through the song as that voice just soars, the measured phrasing and pared down lyrics making it one of those love songs that just cannot be denied. That it beats The Velvet Underground original is almost a given (hey, it was on Loaded); that it makes a record of subdued covers required listening is truly remarkable.

-Peter Hepburn