Monday, July 24, 2006

Great Cover Versions

Cover versions. Love them or hate them, they constitute an unavoidable part of the business, nowadays becoming a bit of a de rigeuer staple for any act, mainstream or leftfield, self-respecting or otherwise. Besides lending that aura of credibility (given the right song to cover), cover versions also serve as a marketing device to help hawk an album (especially if the act is a relative newcomer, or a veteran seeking a second wind).

However, for every outstanding rendering of an accepted standard (e.g. Bruce Springsteen's fierce in-concert account of Norman Whitfield's "War"), there have been more than a disproportionate number of less-than-stellar reinterpretations (e.g. Simply Red's abysmally pedestrian travesty of the Stylistics' "You Make Me Feel Brand New", or Bomb the Bass's gimmicky redoing of Burt Bacharach's "Say a Little Prayer"). Thankfully, looking through my record collection, I did find some examples of several exceptional numbers (some attached with the much-debated "classic" tag) given new or intriguing twists by other acts:

1. WILD IS THE WIND (David Bowie, 1976)
Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington's torch-song archetype is given a superb second life by chameleonic luminary Bowie. Done as the closing track to his masterful 1976 album "Station to Station", Bowie and producer Tony Visconti managed to infuse it with the appropriate amounts of drama, pathos and a smidgen of understated menace, all couched in a suitable chamber jazz-tinged casing. Thoroughly engaging and compelling.

2. JUMP (Aztec Camera, 1984)
Roddy Frame slyly turns this arena-rock fist-pumper into a bemused, laidback bedsit ditty, filled with the right quantity of whimsy, and bolstered by basic synth chords and a downtempo backbeat. One of the most underrated and undermentioned covers of all time.

Only the dynamic duo of arch synth-pop pioneers Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe can turn U2's rousing soul-stirrer into a high-energy, self-mocking dance track, and matching it with the cabaret staple "Can't Take My Eyes Off You". All manner of deliberate, tongue-in-cheek touches like grandiose orchestral-synth flourishes, bombastic brass blasts and stadium-audience samples are added to the mix, although the whole contraption holds up remarkably well in the end. Sheer, intentional creative inanity, and one hell of a musical deconstruction.

3. MEMORIES CAN'T WAIT (Living Colour, 1991)
The Talking Heads paranoia anthem is done in a well-suited kinetic, creeped-out treatment by 1980s hard-rock icons Living Colour. As Vernon Reid unleashes all kinds of weirdly wonderful guitar noise and Corey Glover ruthlessly barks out the fear-filled, jittery songwords, there is an overwhelming compulsion to move one's body in ways never imagined possible before.

4. LITTLE WING (Sting, 1987)
What was once a diminutive tune intended as a bit of a breather in Hendrix's "Axis: Bold as Love" album is transformed completely into a majestic, towering epic by Sting and legendary orchestrator Gil Evans for the former's sophomore effort. Highly evocative and elegiacally elegant, this is the perfect musical equivalent to a sprawling, nocturnal cityscape. A prime, consequential exemplar of how an accepted standard can transcend its fundamental makeup to become something different altogether.

5. I PUT A SPELL ON YOU (Bryan Ferry, 1993)
Screamin' Jay Hawkins's psychotic voodoo-enchantment anecdote metamorphoses into a despondent, despairing after-hours crawl in the hands of stalwart lounge lizard Bryan Ferry. The original's restive, manic disposition is exchanged for a melancholic melange of subdued guitar riffs and funereal synth chords that is equally menacing in its own unique, ghostly way. Absolutely foreboding.

6. HURT (Johnny Cash, 2003)
Trent Reznor's unflinching description of a junkie's last days is made even more poignant - and frightening - by the soon-to-be-departed musical deity Johnny Cash in a rendition for his final album, "American IV: The Man Comes Around". The industrial clatter is replaced by some bleak, downcast acoustic atmospherics, as Cash painfully croaks out the agony-wracked verses, providing a decidedly distinct and knowing dimension to the prophetic words. Don't listen to this with razor blades lying around.

7. MOONLIGHT SONATA (Depeche Mode, 1987)
This is not so much a cover version than it is a well thought-out modern-day reinterpretation of one of the undisputed standards of the romantic era. Featuring the sole participation of resident multi-instrumentalist Alan Wilder on piano, Ludwig's immortal paean to unrequited love is rendered in a thoughtfully measured, quietly emotional transcription that speaks volumes about the subject matter. Unadulterated espondency made into song.

8. I SAW THE LIGHT (Lori Carson, 1997)
Breathy, emotive NYC singer-songwriter Lori Carson delivers a quietly confident rendition of Todd Rundgren's originally exuberant ode to love at first sight. Carson's version is a mannered, reserved, yet gently soulful ballad that perfectly balances the song's lyrical uncertainties with the aura of cautious optimism that eventually shines through. Exquisitely beautiful, much like Carson's inherent artistry.


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