Heard It All Before
As I was tooling around Manhattan today, I happened to hear a subway busker playing "O Holy Night" on a saw. Yes, a saw. And yes, a Christmas Carol in September.
For me, it was not the definitive version of the song.
However, the saw-lady's performance did get me thinking about cover versions, and I would like to extend these questions to all of you...
Which cover versions do you think surpass the originals? Are just as good? Are worse?
Here are my candidates for each category:
(1) Better than the Original
"Red, Red Wine" -- Originally by Neil Diamond. Covered by UB40.
Neil Diamond's version of this song is kind of like Neil Diamond himself: wimpy. It sounds like the epitome of 70s lite rock, and it was recorded in 1968. That should tell you something. Listening to "Diamond Neil's" version, I can almost see him squinting his eyes in earnest feeling. 'Cause the people don't know you mean what you sing unless they can see the power of it is about to drive you blind.
But UB40? To this very day, that sexy reggae beat still makes me want to take off my shirt. Their version is a sexy ode! Granted, it's an ode to how drinking makes you do stupid things, but being drunk is sexy at about 11:30 PM, when nobody's started throwing up. That's the time to hear this slow jam.
Oh, okay, it's always time to hear it, if only for the part where the guy with the Jamaican accent raps. "Red red wine you make feel so fine. You keep me rockin alla da time." Exactly.
(2) As Good as the Original
"Fall on Me" -- Originally by REM. Covered by Cry, Cry, Cry.
Cry, Cry, Cry was a side project of solo folkies Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, and Richard Shindell. They released one album, and each track was a cover of something written by a lesser-known but highly talented songwriter.
And then there was "Fall On Me," the one song they covered that was originally recorded by superstars. Those who love REM tend to love this song, and rightfully so. It's a beautiful, haunting rumination on... well, who knows? The lyrics make no sense. "There's a problem/Feathers, iron/Bargan buildings, weights, and pullies." Um... okay. That's probably about environmentalism, but it could also be about Michael Stipe's acid trip.
Regardless, though, REM's version is great. Cry, Cry, Cry does the song justice by building beautiful harmonies out of the chorus, upping the tempo just a hair, and not using any of the echo-effects that make Michael Stipe's vocal sound so spooky. The result has a crisper, clearer sound, which makes "Fall On Me" seem more mournful. REM's version--recorded during the high point of their college radio days--feels more intellectualized, whereas Cry, Cry, Cry's evokes urgent emotion.
But either way, the song rules.
(3) Worse than the Original
"Big Yellow Taxi"-- Originally by Joni Mitchell. Covered by Amy Grant, then by Counting Crows with Vanessa Carlton.
You know what, artists of the world? One of the great things about Joni Mitchell's version of "Big Yellow Taxi" is that she does not take herself too seriously while singing it. Did you catch that giggle at the end there? Yes, she knows that we don't know what we got 'til it's gone, but she's not ending with the verses on how all the trees are disappearing. She ends the song with the verse about the titular taxi taking away her boyfriend as he dumps her.
And that laugh? Plus the sunny disposition of the music? They suggest that Joni Mitchell knows how silly it is to compare the loss of the forest with the loss of a boyfriend. Global catastrophe and heartbreak are just on different scales.
But sometimes it doesn't feel that way, so what can you do but sing about and try to feel better?
So... um... Counting Crows and Vanessa Freaking Carlton? You missed the point. Your cover of "Big Yellow Taxi," despite Vanessa's vocoder-enhanced "shoo-bop-bops," reeks of self-importance. Overemphasizing the words, Adam Duritz, does not make them poetry. And adding a crappy synth beat does not make this a song that the kids will dig.
Oh, and Amy Grant? I can't dis you too much. You were my first concert, after all, and I knew every word to your "Heart in Motion" album. Baby, baby, I had taken with the notion to love you with the sweetest of devotion.
And when I heard your version of "BYT," I hadn't even heard of Joni Mitchell.
What? I was 13!
But still... I think we both should admit that "Big Yellow Taxi," like everything on your "House of Love" album, is a little lame. Who could have guessed you could sound even more squeaky clean than you did on "Every Heartbeat?"