Somewhere in the 90s, probably lying on the floor of the sitting room on a Saturday night, re-watching The Bodyguard, I was trying (and failing) to out-sing Whitney’s I Will Always Love You. No doubt those high-notes must have brought a tear to my mother’s eye… in the ‘Dear Jesus, how did I breed this?’ kind-of-way. My older sister informed me that no-one can out-sing Whitney’s I Will Always Love You. No-one should try cover it because it is guaranteed failure. ‘Good Effort’ sticker in your copybook, but never a gold star.
Years later I was shook when I found out that Whitney was, herself, covering that song! What did this mean? It just meant it is possible to out-do an original (but maybe not out-do Whitney). The people will always cry ‘SACRILEGE! The original was far better’ at a cover version. But sometimes it is a gift. Sometimes songs become lost, never to be found again, until a cover carries them back up to the diving board for another go. A gift to new ears, or to your memory. And always a love letter to the original.
My choice of cover, for the record, is Bell X1’s Mystery Girl (originally by Roy Orbison).
by Sarah Moloney
With A Girl Like You – Dave Sitek
(originally written and performed by The Troggs)
by Bernie Divilly
I came across this cover on the 2009 Red Hot compilation Dark Was The Night, a brilliantly curated record, produced by those talented Dessner brothers from The National. It was love at first listen.
Having already been a fan of the original, I just immediately connected with the way Sitek (guitarist/keyboardist in TV On The Radio, genius producer, once worked in a coffee shop with Chris from Grizzly Bear) reworks the song almost as a homage. It’s hilariously effortless and fun, but also darker, murkier, fuzzier, bass-drenched, and reverbed to the hilt with Sitek sounding like a pleasantly intoxicated Stephen Merrit.
To my mind it conjures up mean-girl American high school prom films: shiny and swirly but with just the right amount of ominous undertone. It’s for playing loud and swaying drunkenly in your kitchen at 3am, trumpet miming and all. Do it.
Worried Shoes – Daniel Smith & Sufjan Stevens
(originally written and performed by Daniel Johnston)
by Bobby Aherne
The original version of ‘Worried Shoes’ is so deeply intimate that the idea of somebody other than Daniel Johnston performing it seems almost sacrilegious. Recorded in one take, onto a dusty old tape recorder on a Texan summer’s day (in his brother’s presumably sweltering garage), his parable about overcoming depression has a near-improvised quality and sounds so pained and diaristic that it’s entirely likely that the listener will feel like a voyeuristic weirdo, eavesdropping in on something that they were never meant to hear.
Enter Daniel Smith and his one-time Danielson Famile bandmate Sufjan Stevens. Similar to Johnston, Smith has an endearingly abrasive, high-pitched and fragile voice that enables him to respectfully deliver the tune without stripping it of any of its emotional resonance. Although the Daniel Johnston revival of the 2000s was aided largely by a series of heavyweights (Beck, Tom Waits, et al) recording ‘better quality’ versions of the originals, Smith & Stevens’ rendition succeeds on more than just access to a fancy studio and ProTools wizardry. Instead, it glides by on the idea that maybe this is the sound that Johnston actually had in his head back in his brother’s garage in 1983 – perhaps this is the song that he might have recorded, had he been pally with a drummer and a guitarist and somebody who knew how to overdub properly.
Luckily for us, he didn’t… and now both versions exist. In this is the magic of a well-intended cover, and the legacy of a great artist: as well as gifting us with the original, ‘authentic’ piece of music, they are setting it free for the rest of us to adopt, tweak re-interpret, be inspired by, or – of course – murder in a karaoke bar at 4am, after way too many bottles of Korean beer.
I’m On Fire – Electrelane
(originally written and performed by Bruce Springsteen)
by Daniel Gray
Covering the Boss is like beholding the Gorgon, even for the most mythical of musicians; Bowie, Cash, and Donna Summer have all recorded versions made of dead stone. Springsteen’s 1985 shag track, I’m On Fire, has racked up dozens of tepid tributes over the years: the only one that counts is English quartet Electrelane’s, an offcut from 2004’s Steve Albini-produced The Power Out.
Out goes Springsteen’s muted arpeggios, muted backbeat and muted libido, in come smashed cymbals, crunching bass throbs and screeching, off-key lust. What remains is the blue-balled vulnerability.
The key difference between these two versions? When Springsteen whispers that he’s on fire, you know he’s been singed. When Verity Susman screams it, you can hear the the third degree burns.
Exit Music for a Film – Brad Mehldau
(originally written and performed by Radiohead)
by Dave Desmond
Jazz is a music of assimilation and reinterpretation, and has always looked to popular music as a point of departure for improvisation and harmonic exploration. Jazz musicians of the early 20th Century often took popular Broadway and Hollywood musicals for repertoire, and while these songs are still widely performed jazz standards to this day, many modern musicians now look to their own contemporaries rather than to the past for their inspiration. In the 90s and 00s it became increasingly popular for bands to adapt alternative rock tunes, for example, The Bad Plus began to record and perform cover versions of acts like Aphex Twin, Wilco, The Pixies and Black Sabbath, while Brad Mehldau found new depths in the work of Nick Drake and Radiohead.
My favourite cover by Brad is found on his 1998 album The Art of the Trio Vol. III. It’s an instrumental version of Radiohead’s “Exit Music for a Film” from their album OK Computer, which was released only a year earlier. Here his trio manages to retain the slow build and monumental climax of the original song using minimal components, with Mehldau’s virtuosic piano improvisation and drummer Jorge Rossy’s pacy stick work instead providing the dynamic and emotive range.
Bill Callahan – The Breeze/My Baby Cries
(originally written and performed by Kath Bloom)
by Dylan Haskins
The Breeze/My Baby Cries was written by the relatively obscure American folk musician Kath Bloom. Bill Callahan covered the song for Loving Takes its Course, a 2009 tribute album to Bloom. Perhaps it’s because I heard the cover before I’d ever heard of Kath Bloom, but after seeking out the original, recorded in 1982, I was a bit disappointed. There’s something unsettling and frantic about the arrangement.
Authorship matters less in music than other art forms. When Callahan takes The Breeze, he slows everything right down, unsheathing a powerful solemnity concealed in the song. The restraint of his delivery allows time for each weighty line of Bloom’s lyrics to land. The resigned refrain of ‘The Breeze will kill me’ exposes the human soul at its most vulnerable.
But for me, the line that lingers longest is “It’s so hard to tell where I end / And where my father begins”. I recall it in those not infrequent moments of awareness that I too am encroaching on the purlieus of fatherhood.
I Was Young When I Left Home – Antony + Bryce Dessner
(originally written and performed by Daniel Johnston)
by Robyn Chase
It’s happened to me a few times. I put on a new record and a song comes on: The lyrics are rich and simple, the form is basic, yet the tone is worldly and somehow essential. It’s subject is universal, uncomplicated images pass by and illustrate. This music feels like it was always there.
The first time this happened to me, I had just discovered Nina Simone and heard her singing I Shall Be Released. Soon after, it happened again listening to Adele’s debut, and the track Make You Feel My Love. I can’t remember when I discovered the link between the two was a Bob Dylan writing cred.
My musical upbringing had suffered a complete Dylan drought and whenever I did try explore his recorded work, it just didn’t click with me. Despite this I have found a way to appreciate his songwriting. This recording by Antony + Bryce Dessner (ANOHNI and of The National fame, respectively) of I Was Young When I Left Home does everything I think a cover should. It departs from the original yet amplifies what makes the song worthy of recital: in this case, its lyrics and the worlds created therein. Antony’s vocal is as touching, knowing and persisting as ever, while Dessner’s accompaniment and production creates a timeless frame in which this arcadian tale of departure and return can suspend.
Ruby Tuesday – Dick Gaughan
(originally written and performed by The Rolling Stones)
by Philip King
Ruby Tuesday is a great song and has stayed with me since I first heard it rolling out from under my pillow on a lemon-coloured transistor radio on wings of static, on 208 from Luxembourg.
The Rolling Stones recorded “Ruby Tuesday” in December 1966 and the song was released along with “Let’s Spend The Night Together” as a double A-sided single on January 13 1967. The single was banned from in Ireland: The notion of ‘spending the night together’ in 1967 Ireland was just not acceptable!
Ruby Tuesday lyrically and sonically is a shift away from the blues inflected grammar of the earlier Stones stuff. ‘66 was the year of The Beatles’ Revolver, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and The Stones were rattling around in the playpen wondering what to do next.Ruby Tuesday is all Keith Richards a little Brian Jones (who had not fully entered the chemical world) and a little Mick Jagger.
Ruby Tuesday is a ballad, a story song about a free-spirited wild child Linda Keith, who ditched Richards for Jimi Hendrix.
Don’t question why she needs to be so free
She’ll tell you it’s the only way to be
She just can’t be chained
To a life where nothing’s gained
And nothing’s lost, at such a cost
String bass fingered by Bill Wyman and bowed by Keith along with a floating flute figure underpin Mick’s vocal. The Stones 1967 recording is of its time, but Dick Gaughan’s setting is timeless. (From the album Sail On 1996, Greentrax).
Gaughan a Scottish musician, and as a singer of the highest order, he takes ownership of the song. There is no one quite like Gaughan: his songs of struggle, love and freedom are pitted and lined with rage and compassion. His voice is an instrument filled with a plaintive Irish tone and sharp Scottish rhythm. Like all great ballad singers, the song sings him, Ruby Tuesday sings him. Harp and a glistening opened-tuned guitar lay down a musical bed for his beautiful voice, with every syllable, every rolling “R” riveting. Ruby comes alive and the song is replete with a sense of love, loss,longing and a lingering hint of danger.
The Stones (Keith in particular) were always friends of “Danger”. Dick Gaughan with this rendition adds a hint of grace to their danger. Ruby Tuesday, through his voice, finds redemption and wisdom – “lose your dreams and you will lose your mind”. We couldn’t hear that in 1967 – we sure know it now.
The Avalanches’ Since I Left You – Arranged by Nico Muhly for Alarm Will Sound
by Rob Farhat
When I was asked to write this piece by Cheap Trick, I completely misunderstood the premise and thought the idea was to write about my favourite hypothetical cover, as opposed to one that actually exists as I was eventually told. Given that I’m a stubborn bastard who has no respect for authority, I went ahead with my original understanding anyway.
My favourite hypothetical cover is an orchestral arrangement of one of my favourite albums. Specifically, I would bloody love Nico Muhly to arrange The Avalanches’ entire debut (and until recently only) album Since I Left You, which the contemporary ensemble Alarm Will Sound would record and tour globally.
Since I Left You is a remarkable masterpiece that is almost entirely made up of over 3,500 samples – you could argue it’s an album full of mini covers in itself – which when put together create something both entirely new and nostalgic at the same time. Covering a single song would be a very challenging task in itself, but which song would you pick? The whole album plays like a non-stop, hour-long emotional rollercoaster and you would just have to do the whole thing. Sorry.
Nico Muhly is one of the finest contemporary composers right now, and has also done arrangements for some of my favourite artists like Björk, Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear, Antony & The Johnsons, and Joanna Newsom. He’s never been averse to a bit of whimsy in his instrumentation and if anyone can take on the mammoth task of orchestrating an album with the playfulness and sheer variety of Since I Left You, it’s him. Good luck, Nico.
And as for the performers, Alarm Will Sound have already taken on Steve Reich’s arrangements of Radiohead, and a set of arrangements of the music of Aphex Twin, so this should be no bother to them.
Make it happen guys. Nice one.
Rise Above – Dirty Projectors
(originally written and performed by Black Flag)
by Ian Lamont
The conceit behind Dirty Projectors’s 2007 album Rise Above is as follows: DPs mainman Dave Longstreth found a cassette box –– without the cassette in it –– for Black Flag’s 1981 album Damaged and, lacking the physical media to listen to the record, decided to reimagine it from memory.
The album he wrote, of course, bore absolutely no resemblance to the music of Black Flag. Where Greg Ginn’s songs are violent smears of apoplexy and dissatisfaction, Longstreth’s are weird abstractions of a political dissent that has the comfort of ironic distance. Where Black Flag hammered down the accelerator without prejudice, Dirty Projectors swooped, hovered, spiralled and soared hanging together on Longstreth’s skronky guitar and grating voice and the infinitely pleasing hockets and harmonies of Amber Coffman and Susanna Waiche (later Angel Deradoorian).
There’s a smartarsedness to this potentially apocryphal backstory that is definitely part of the attraction to me. Dave Longstreth’s music is often arch in the extreme, but I like the idea of stitching the music one makes into the greater narrative –– in this case, American independent music –– and of quoting and recontextualising art as part of an ongoing conversation. But while it’s hifalutin, it also channels the sense of loss that comes with nostalgia and repurposes Ginn’s monolithic frustrations for a more nuanced (read: confusing) world.
Illustration: Sarah Moloney