Saturday, May 16, 2009

Compulsive Chronicles #5: “Oh, Make Me Over . . . ”

(CC is an ongoing music column for SPOKE(a)N(e) Magazine. Each month, I post supplementary material to the column’s topic on this page. To read past supplements and find links to previous columns, please visit all posts under my SPOKE(a)N(e) label.)

Favorite Cover Songs (with nary a “Hallelujah” knock-off in sight!)

In my Alphabet Soup project (first draft reflections on five favorite songs for each letter of the alphabet), I’ve already mentioned some cover songs:

"Cum on Feel the Noize” — Oasis (Quiet Riot)
“Got My Mind Set on You” — George Harrison (James Ray)
“Handle with Care” — Jenny Lewis and Conor Oberst (The Traveling Wilburys, possibly one of the best covers ever)
“I Want You to Want Me” — Letters to Cleo (Cheap Trick)
“I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine” — Beth Orton (The Ronettes)

“Janie Jones” — Bush (The Clash)
“Suspicious Minds” — Gavin Rossdale (Elvis)
“This Guy’s in Love with You” — Noel Gallagher (Burt Bacharach, also one of the best)

Here are some others:

1. Mama, You Been on My Mind - Rod Stewart (Bob Dylan)

Hang on, hang on, don’t leave. Hear me out. I am not a Rod Stewart fan, and when I heard his atrocious cover of Oasis’ “Cigarettes & Alcohol” not quite ten years ago, it caused me to sputter aloud “What the hell IS this?” I’d been rather neutral regarding the man before, but that sent me right over the edge of loathing.

So you can imagine how strange it feels to appreciate this song and want to play it repeatedly. When McSweeney’s was clearing out the CD accompaniment to Nick Hornby’s Songbook, I bought one. A few years had passed since I’d read the book, so I couldn’t remember what he’d said about every song. I only looked at the track listing, saw Rod Stewart and thought, “Oh, well, I probably end up skipping over that one.”

When I didn’t skip, I ignored. The song became background noise, four and a half minutes to concentrate on whatever I was doing rather than singing along. Then one evening, as I was staring at a slow-going page I’d been writing, one line caught my attention:

I’m not asking you to say words like yes or no, please understand me

I started the song over and listened. And listened again. Though the song did not completely apply to what I’d written, I recognized the sentiment. The notion of laying out your feelings, not knowing if it will make any difference except in clearing the air, it resonated.

That anything coming out of Rod Stewart’s mouth could do this to me was, to say the least, unsettling. Curious to know more, I picked up Songbook again and discovered that it was originally a Bob Dylan song. I’ve said before, Bob doesn’t have much space in my music collection. Bit by bit, I am rectifying the lapse. It’s not that I’ve ever not liked Bob Dylan; he just managed to get shoved down the ‘To Buy’ list for far too long. I have a burned collection of hits, Time Out of Mind and Blood on the Tracks. That’s it. Shameful, I know.

Still, I felt better about liking this song after I knew its source. I’m able to look past the voice and enjoy it as a whole, and instead of avoiding or ignoring, I seek out the song.

Perhaps it’s the color of the sun cut flat
An’ coverin’ the crossroads I’m standing at
Or maybe it’s the weather, or something like that

...but I became just a touch more tolerant of Rod Stewart. When VH1 Classic aired an old BBC Concert from when he sang with The Faces, I enjoyed it. If I can continue the illusion that he does not exist beyond the 70s, he’s not nearly so irritating. I’ll allow him this one place in my favorites, but I can never forgive him for the horrible Oasis cover. Some crimes are too great.

2. I Don’t Like Mondays - Tori Amos (The Boomtown Rats)

There’s an episode of The West Wing (“20 Hours in America”) that uses this song, played after news breaks about a pipe bomb set off on a college campus. They’d referenced the original earlier in the episode, and Tori’s version closes the show with a poignancy and sad beauty that the handclaps and over-the-top style never could.

Not that I have any problem with the Boomtown Rats’ delivery — it just wouldn’t have worked for the show. Here and there, the current version of 120 Minutes will play the original song, complete with choppy editing and Bob Geldof’s ridiculous clothes. Even though the song seems like it’s all chorus, there’s something to it. Though I like both, and have a great weakness for handclaps, I think that Tori found a way to unlock its potential. It might be one of those interpretations that surpasses the original, but I may also just be influenced by its use in my favorite TV show.

The album from where this cover comes, StrangeLittleGirls, is full of all sorts of interesting surprises. Most people noted her version of Eminem’s “97 Bonnie & Clyde,” but I tend to skip over that one. Aside from “I Don’t Like Mondays,” probably my favorite song on the album is “Time,” originally by Tom Waits.

While I find it strange when an artist releases a cover song as their first single (see: Joss Stone or Alana Davis), I quite enjoy it when an entire album comes mid-career. When they’re delivered as a side project and not a career move (see: my problems with Rod Stewart), I find it interesting to see what an artist picks. Much like Tori herself, her picks are surprising and a bit all over the place, but she manages to bring it together into something that can only be her.

3. ...Baby One More Time - Travis (Britney Spears)

Sometimes covers take a song we never liked and make it palatable. Ska and punk bands have a particular talent for this, with Me First and the Gimme Gimmes making an entire career of it. Less Than Jake’s rendering of “I Think I Love You” leaves me less hostile to the schmaltz of David Cassidy, and Reel Big Fish have a fun version of A-ha’s “Take on Me.”

However, perhaps the most surprising cover comes from the band Travis. Not quite ten years ago, they took Britney’s “ . . . Baby One More Time” and made it good. I know they’re not the only band to cover this song, but I suppose they’re the only band that I care about who have.

At first, they began playing it as a joke, something that would make the listeners spend the first verse thinking, “Is this what I think it is?” From there, it began to lose its irony. With an acoustic guitar in tow, the song doesn’t sound much different from any other lovelorn plea from more “serious” artists.

Oh pretty baby, there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do,
it’s not the way I planned

Shame Britney had to muck it up with the schoolgirl dancing and insincere pout. The song’s a bit like those cakes made to look like other foods — the cake itself is quite good, but someone decided to carve and frost it into the shape of a herring.

I had this song on a mix CD I made in 2001, which I played a lot during drives between Great Falls and Missoula. Driving after the sunset, keeping one eye out for deer, it seemed funny at first to sing along. From the beginning, I’ve hated all things Britney. I cannot even say I’ve liked her as a “guilty pleasure,” which is just a stupid thing insecure music fans say when they don’t want their hipster friends to make fun of them. But there I was, going 75 mph in Sid the Angry Volvo, loudly singing to myself.

I cannot say it enough: Delivery is everything.

4. There is a Light That Never Goes Out - Noel Gallagher (The Smiths)

I want to like The Smiths. I try to like The Smiths, having no major problems with either the music or lyrics. Their importance in the grand history of rock, I understand. Still, I can’t say for certain, “Yes, The Smiths are a band I enjoy.”

It all comes down to one factor, an unignorable and puzzling element: Morrissey. I can’t watch him perform. Most of my Smiths exposure comes from old videos, which I keep watching, wondering if I’ll ever come around. The loopy dancing, the earnest expressions — when added to his morose voice, it’s overkill. It’s all a little too “tortured poet” for me, that whole package.

I like the songs better without visuals, and I will say that “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” is quite good (Is there an award to win for ridiculously long song titles? Just wondering) with or without the video. Still, I’ve always had that lingering feeling that maybe I’d like these songs a lot more if I wasn’t distracted by Moz himself.

It should come as no surprise that I like just about anything a lot more if it comes out of Noel Gallagher’s mouth. I can’t help it, and like any good addict so far gone, I don’t see it as problem. Noel’s a big Smiths fan, and he covered this song at the Teenage Cancer Trust benefit in 2007. The set is now available for download, titled The Dreams We Have As Children.

While of course I knew I would love the semi-acoustic performance, complete with strings and the two-song Paul Weller appearance, there really is something special about this Smiths cover. Whereas Morrissey always sounds lonely to me, Noel’s voice has such weightlessness that works extraordinarily well here.

Take me out tonight
to where there’s music and there’s people
and the young and alive
Driving in your car
I never, never want to go home
because I haven’t got one

It’s a fantastic song, full of adoration and yearning. It’s easy to see how the Smiths touched Noel’s songwriting, even though he tends to take those on those feelings from a position of hope. Oasis have always been a band who’ve worn their influences on their sleeves, proud of them and eager to share with others. They’re not afraid to say, “I heard this song, and I want to do something like that.”

With Oasis over 15 years into their career, they’re at the point where other bands cite them as a reason for picking up the guitar. Quite often, they end up promoting and touring with these bands. In a recent interview with Q Magazine, Noel talks about frequent tourmates, Kasabian: “It’s amazing to think, when we did those gigs in 1997 at Earl’s Court with The Verve, Tom and Serge were in the crowd. Their mom and dad had driven them to London and dropped them off. It blew my mind — it happened to them.”

I may never fully come around to Morrissey, just as some of you will never come to like Oasis. (If that’s true, I commend you for still reading.) However, I’m curious to see how the lineage of rock music will continue, how one band will feed into another. In ten or twenty years time, what will the cover songs sound like?

5. River - Travis, Robert Downey Jr. (Joni Mitchell)

Travis singer Fran Healey tells a funny story about hearing this song for the first time, where he used to go over to a friend’s house and the guy would play it on the piano. Fran thought it was a beautiful song, and one day, he said to the friend, “Play that song you wrote.” The friend had to inform Fran, much to his mortification, of the source.

I feel for the guy — At one point, I had to stop and think when a teacher of mine asked if I knew who Robert Plant was. He and I were discussing my hair, which was long, blonde and worn curly that day. I panicked for a moment, thinking that I’d get Plant and Jimmy Page backwards. “He’s the, uh, singer? In Led Zeppelin?” I said, while melting with embarrassment. Didn’t matter that I was right — the way I said it gave me away. My knowledge of rock history at fifteen was only beginning. I still had plenty of Behind the Music to mainline, after all.

It wasn’t long after that conversation that I discovered Joni Mitchell’s Blue. A guy I liked was a big Joni fan, and after he said “The Last Time I Saw Richard” was one of his favorite songs, I picked up the album out of my dad’s collection. Every song is perfect, and I’m surprised that I don’t hear more covers from it. Someone takes a crack at “A Case of You” every once in awhile, but it’s “Big Yellow Taxi” from a different album that gets the attention. (The Counting Crows/Vanessa Carlton version has to be one of the worst covers of all time. The “ooh-bop-bop” alone makes my skin crawl. But then, I’m no great fan of the original either.)

“River” is sort of a Christmas song, mentioning the holiday in the first line, and it talks about feeling disconnected and longing for comfort.

Well, it don’t snow here
It stays pretty green
Gonna make a lot of money
and then I’m going to quit this crazy scene

Travis does a beautiful version that stays close to the original, and I like it just as much. When listening to any of their albums, one wouldn’t immediately liken them to Joni Mitchell, but hearing them cover “River” feels natural.

During his stint on Ally McBeal, Robert Downey Jr. quite often sang and played piano, and during one episode in which his character prepares to leave, he sang “River.” Given his real-life personal problems at the time, certain lines carried self-aware poignancy:

I’m so hard to handle
I’m selfish and I’m sad
Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby
that I ever had

He has a great bluesy voice, filled with aching introspection. I have a few songs that he performed on that show, though I’ve yet to hear much of the album he released since then. To me, he’s always seemed like a complicated sort of guy worth writing about. He has ‘literary fiction character’ scrawled all over him, with the tales of early success, self-destruction and eventual resurrection. The actual details need not stay the same, but a person like him would be interesting to “cover.”

If I constantly make the argument that musicians can’t help but be influenced by the music they love, that no music (maybe save for Björk) is completely original, may I also add that no character is either. A writer’s voice can be personal and unmistakable, but their ideas come from life, not some ethereal creative mist in the air. Maybe that’s why I like a good cover song — It’s a way of acknowledging that we all come from somewhere. Everything we will ever do is inspired by and an amalgamation of what has come before. And every once in awhile, we want to pay tribute.

Honorable Mentions:

John Sinclair - Blind Melon (John Lennon)
Anyone who dismissed Blind Melon as one hit wonders and only know them from the Bee Girl is doing themselves a disservice. I highly recommend the entire Nico album.

Wonderwall - Ryan Adams (Oasis)
Because nothing quite makes me happier than when one of my very favorite solo artists covers my very favorite band. You’d think that couldn’t be topped, but then they went and toured together. More things I like should team up, like when Sarah Vowell did the intro for Nick Hornby’s Shakespeare Wrote For Money. Someone should get Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig in a movie together. I’m not saying that shirts would be banned from the script, but let’s make some money, Hollywood. Call me.

(Edit 5/27/09: Hahaha, and just like that, there's a story about Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig doing Broadway together. That's ALMOST good enough, but I don't live in the area...)

No comments:

Post a Comment