Regina Spektor dropped a cover of Radiohead’s “No Surprises” (Youtube here) to benefit the Doctors Without Borders charity fund, which helps fund doctors in Chile and Haiti. The version isn’t as good as the original, but it does maintain a beauty that separates from Radiohead’s. Spektor can turn out an incredible song when she avoids the forced-weirdness prevalent in so many songs.
This then got me thinking about covers as a whole. God knows there are a lot of terrible ones, all you have to do is youtube “coldplay covers” to see some people make total asses of themselves, but there aren’t many good ones; a good artist makes a cover his own while still paying tribute to the original. Most of the time the artist simply can’t match the original in terms of emotion, but a majority of covers are also too much a carbon copy of the original, but every now and then a song is completely altered by an artist’s new interpretation. There is an endless catalog of Beatles songs that are covers that completely trump their originals, with the most obvious example being “You’ve Really Gotta Hold On Me.” Here are some more reason reimaginings that I loved more the second time around.
EDIT: Speaking of covers, who knew an alt-country of Kid Cudi could work? Check out Barbara’s version of Pursuit of Happiness (here) .
Time to Pretend (MGMT Cover)
This cover from the frontman of Sigur Rós, Jónsi, dropped a few months ago and was a total surprise to just about everyone. An introduction is probably fairly pointless, but needless to say Jónsi’s version is a huge departure from the original. He draws out MGMT’s songwriting by stripping away virtually everything that made the song famous in the first place. There’s no synth-pop hooks, no danceability, just the lost innocence that underlay the original. Jónsi was the perfect man to draw this out, his childlike croon so endearing it’s almost hard to hear him sing the word “cocaine.”
Jónsi | Time to Pretend (MGMT Cover)
I didn’t want to put 2 MGMT songs on this list, but Ben Lee’s version of “Kids” is is excellent, and is here.
First Aid Kit –
Tiger Mountain Peasent Song (Fleet Foxes Cover)
If you put in “Fleet Foxes” in the youtube search window, this is the sixth video down, underneath all of Fleet Foxes’ official videos. And it deserves to be there. These girls simply have incredible voices, good enough to give Robin Pecknold a challenge, and he’s got probably one of the best voices on the scene today. I’ve heard Pecknold sing this live, and he’s incredible and all, but I think these girls have a slightly more folksy tone to their voice that pushes them over. Pecknold’s incredible, but his version rests on a smoother melody while these girls sang a version with a little more edge that I think helps push it over.
Apparently, these two girls from Sweden make up the band First Aid Kit and released an album. Their MySpace can be found here. They’re actually pretty damn good.
A studio cut of this song can be downloaded from here.
Lily Allen (Ft. Mick Jones) –
Straight to Hell (The Clash Cover)
The Clash’s “Straight to Hell” is probably now most famous for being the song that sounds a lot like Paper Planes. For reference, it can be found here.
Lily Allen’s version was released as a part of the War Child Presents… series which, similarly to the Regina Spektor release mentioned above, is a charity, though this one is released to benefit children displaced by war. The unique thing about these releases however is that they are covers requested by the original artists. Allen’s godfather is the Clash’s Joe Strummer, so the request isn’t all that surprising. Now I admittedly have a weird soft spot for Lily Allen, but what I like most about this version is just how entirely different it is. The song was originally written to decry the social injustice of the Vietnam-era, mostly speaking about children fathered and then deserted by the American troops in Vietnam at the time.
Allen’s version doesn’t undercut this intent, but she just augment it significantly to her own production style. I also think it’s more thematically interesting to hear a woman sing it, given its lyrical content. A woman singing “Go straight to hell, boys/Go straight to hell” carries a different kind of weight than a man, even if the woman is commonly derided as spoiled and obnoxious. Allen’s version also has a little more punch musically, and her voice is a lot stronger to carry the song than Strummer’s was.
Lily Allen (ft. Mick Jones) | Straight to Hell (The Clash Cover)
Iron & Wine –
Such Great Heights (Postal Service Cover)
It’s virtually impossible to say anything about this one that hasn’t already been said. It’s up for debate as to whether it’s better than Postal Service’s version, but Iron & Wine’s acoustic reimagination of “Such Great Heights” has grown to have a life of its own, thanks to its inclusion on the Garden State soundtrack–before which it was a virtually-unknown B-side.
My only misgiving about this song in fact has little to do with the song, but rather its popularity. It’s an excellent rendition of an excellent song, but Iron & Wine’s original stuff is incredible and under-appreciated. If you like this song, you should definitely delve deeper into his releases.
Even putting it up here seems silly, as its doubtful there’s anyone that hasn’t heard it.
Iron & Wine | Such Great Heights (Postal Service Cover)
Yim Yames –
Long, Long, Long (Beatles Cover)
This one is kind of hard for me because it is a Beatles cover, and to say a cover of a Beatles song is better than the original is a fairly audacious statement. But I do think My Morning Jacket’s Jim James’ recording of “Long, Long, Long” captures a much more ethereal feeling than that of the original, which is itself mixed far too quietly. Recorded in the days following George Harrison’s death, the Tribute To EP is just that, six Harrison songs recorded as a tribute to the underrated Beatle. Unfortunately, as a tribute it lacks a certain level of reverence for Harrison, sounding more like Jim James just decided to record some Harrison tunes one day.
The exception is “Long, Long, Long” which feels natural as a tribute song. The line “How could I have lost you?” takes on a different meaning in this context, imbuing it with a certain radiance. The recording itself is straightforward, just James and his guitar and a whole lot of reverb, which serves to give James’ voice a heavenly quality–which only works for “Long, Long, Long” and “All Things Must Pass.”
But the main reason I consider this better than the Beatles’ recording is the fact that the original felt like a throwawy, tacked on to the White Album and never given the proper attention it deserved. For the Yim Yames cut, its brought into the spotlight and while it may not have required effort to do, his version is imbued with emotion, present in his voice and in light of Harrison’s death. It’s no Concert for George, but it is nonetheless one hell of a tribute.
Yim Yames | Long, Long, Long (Beatles Cover)