November 06, 2006

Out I Never Did Figure It

by peterb

When I still used to DJ regularly, I conformed to all of the college radio stereotypes. I spoke in the obligatory disinterested monotone (MP3 recording of a simulation here), played obscure bands on minor labels, and inflicted unlistenable electronic garbage upon my listeners.

I was sophisticated. I was hipper than thou. I was, in short, a complete jackass.

As I've gotten older, my tastes in music have both expanded and calcified. I'm willing to listen to almost anything, but there needs to be some hook, some immediate accessibility to let me in to the music. Noise and industrial soundscapes are simply not in the equation: when someone asks me to listen to something inscrutable, I ask myself: why am I wasting valuable time that could be spent listening to Tom Waits, instead?

While I'm sure this might deprive me of a lot of exciting new music, all is not lost, for there is one side door I have left open: I'm an absolute sucker for covers.

The cover is accesibility personified. It's a chance to witness the conflict between authorial intent and artistic reinterpretation from the front row. They can range anywhere from straightfoward and mundane, like Lana Lane's cover of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" (iTunes link) to profane and funny mockery, as in Oizone's cover of Tracy Chapman's ballad "Baby Can I Hold You" (iTunes link). At their best, covers can completely subvert and coopt their source material. Johnny Cash's cover of the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt" does this so completely that even Trent Reznor agrees: it's not his song anymore. It's Johnny Cash's song now (watch the video here).

Finding covers before the Internet was a fairly haphazard activity, but today you can just subscribe to Copy, Right?, who regularly posts excerpts from covers so good (or, sometimes, so bad) it will make your head explode.

The other thing that has changed recently is that with the advent of better and easier to use computer music tools, it's now amazingly easy for rank amateurs to create and distribute their own music. And sometimes, that music is a cover. Which brings us to an odd little project called Look What the Fans Drug In.

Look What the Fans Drug In is a project to record and distribute fan-remakes of nearly every song recorded by pop artist and producer Michael Penn, Sean's older brother. Most people know of Michael Penn for his greatest achievement, which was marrying Aimee Mann. But it turns out that he has recorded some music too. His production values are very similar to Mann's, leaning towards syncopation and combining sparse leads with layered backgrounds. His lyrics tend towards literary self-indulgence, but are emotionally sincere.

I'm somewhat fascinated with this fan-made tribute project for a few reasons. First, I know most of the music, which surely makes it more interesting. But it's also audacious in terms of its sheer scope. The performances range in quality from somewhat embarassing to professional-sounding and fun. I won't pick on the bad ones. These people aren't trying to sell anything, and I see no reason to put down a sincere effort. The songs I didn't like tended to have two things in common. First, an overly rigorous reliance on a click track or drum machine. You want to have some rhythm, but many of these just sounded too mechanical. The second problem is, quite simply, that some of these artists are trying a bit too hard to sound like Michael Penn, to the point of matching accents, intonations, inflections, and so on. I think a number of these songs would have been much better if the artists had been willing to bring the song to themselves, rather than simply immersing themselves in it.

Some of the high points of the collection were Michel Drucker's cover of "Macy Day Parade" (mp3), Allen Walker's rendition of "Drained" (mp3), and Andrea Zils' "O.K." (mp3). You can download the entire collection — including liner notes and album covers for CDs, should you wish to burn them, here. The project apparently has Penn's blessing, so download without guilt. Then come back here, and share which ones you particularly liked.

Incidentally, Penn has done the odd cover himself — on the Badlands tribute album, he and Mann covered Bruce Springsteen's "Reason to Believe" (also known as "The only song on the Nebraska album that doesn't make the listener want to slit her or his wrists.") A sample is here, courtesy of Heartache with Hard Work.

So someone should let me know when the Nick Cave cover project starts. I've got this idea for this doo-wop/a capella version of "Red Right Hand"...

Posted by peterb at November 6, 2006 06:26 PM | Bookmark This

Well, I'm a sucker for covers myself. So a few of my favorites:

* Warren Zevon does a cover of "Back in the High Life Again" that is a very slow and mournful, almost elegiac, piece.

* Zevon also recorded "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" on his last album (the one he did while dying from lung cancer).

* Richard Thompson has an album called "1000 years of Popular Music" which records him (with guitar) playing pieces from "Summer is acumen in" to "Whoops I Did It Again" (along with the obscure Brittany-Coast song, "Marry, Agyn Hic Have Done Ytt"). You haven't lived until you've heard Richard Thompson sing Britney Spears. It's up there with his rockabilly interpretation of Danny Boy.

* There are two Richard Thompson tribute albums, one of which has Bob Mould reinterpreting "Turning Of The Tide" in his own style, it's revelatory.

* I assume at this point that Rachid Taha's "Rock El Casbah" doesn't have to be mentioned...

Posted by Mike Collins at November 6, 2006 07:01 PM

This album of Jimi Hendrix covers is quite good:

This album of Led Zeppelin covers is weak:

This album of mashups is beyond excellent:

-- Jon F

Posted by at November 6, 2006 07:06 PM

I have that Richard Thompson cover album -- it's called "Beat the Retreat", and nearly ever song on it is fantastic. I'd say the pick of the album is between the Bob Mould cover, or Michael Stipe's cover of "Wall of Death".

For those of you who missed it in the original post (I added it after the fact), I've put up my impression of the Standard College Radio DJ Voice.

Posted by peterb at November 6, 2006 08:16 PM

Agh! I almost forgot after you mentioned Tom Waits.

For some reason, *Disney* released a fascinatingly called "Stay Awake". It's a collection of really bizarre interpretations of Disney. Buster Poindexter singing "Castle in Spain", Sun Ra and the Arkestra performing "Pink Elephants on Parade".

Tom Waits singing "Heigh-Ho" in the most positively cthonian fashion imaginable.

Posted by Mike Collins at November 6, 2006 08:34 PM

Some of my favorite covers, off the top of my head:

* Xiu Xiu's version of "Ceremony" by Joy Division.
* TV on the Radio's version of "Mr. Grieves" by the Pixies.
* Okkervil River built a whole album expanding on and based around Tim Hardin's "Black Sheep Boy". It's probably my favorite album of 2005.
* I guess you'd have to count Soft Cell's "Tainted Love", even though it's far more famous than the original.
* For Mike, Magnolia Electric Company does a decent cover of "Werewolves of London", though I thought it was better live than on disc.
* The Residents have built half a career out of covering and interpreting pop songs; I'm a sucker for the remix version of their version of Elvis' "Little Sister". Their Hank Williams Sr covers are also well worth checking out.

Most of those songs are available on eMusic, too.

Posted by Adam Rixey at November 6, 2006 09:15 PM

I can't believe the Greatest Cover Of All Time slipped my mind:

Posted by Adam Rixey at November 6, 2006 09:22 PM

The Dandy Warhols cover of AC/DC's Hells Bells was immense.

As much as Hendrix fans will hate to hear this, I'm a fan of Malmsteens cover of "Spanish Castle Magic" as well

Posted by Paul at November 6, 2006 10:32 PM

Rixey's right, that is one of the Greatest Covers of All Time. However, another is Flesh Eating Foundation's cover of "Baby One More Time". Or perhaps their cover of "In the Air Tonight". They did a lot of good covers.
Joy Machine (as Brand New Idol) also did a couple great covers. One was of "Bela Lugosi's Dead" by Bauhaus, while the other was of course "How Soon Is Now?" by The Smiths. The notable thing here is that Joy Machine almost perfectly mimics the Depeche Mode sound and flavor.

Posted by Chris Hanson at November 6, 2006 11:12 PM

No, no, no, no, no, no.

That Jonathan Coulton cover is only the second best cover.

Here is the best cover ever: The Gourds covering Snoop Dogg: video iTunes link to live version.

Posted by peterb at November 6, 2006 11:39 PM

You should check out Brandon Shott's cover of Perfect Candidate on Look What the Fans Drug In. Sufjan Stevenesque and wonderful. This cover takes the song and expands on it - and is wonderful in its own right.

Posted by Spencer Lewis at November 7, 2006 12:01 AM

Oh, and Biftek's version of "Wired for Sound" - excellent

Posted by Paul at November 7, 2006 12:02 AM

Q Magazine had a couple of cover-mounted CD recently that were all covers. As always there was a high dross factor, but there were also some real gems, including:

Franz Ferdinand doing What You Waiting For (if only for the singer's reading of "take a chance you stupid ho" and the way they suddenly start doing "white Wedding" towards the end)
Sugababes doing I bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor (much better than you'd think)
Editors with a not too different but somehow ballsier Orange Crush
And a fantastic oddly mournful Disco 2000 by Nick Cave

Jack Johnson does something to 3 (Is A Magic Number), though, that makes me despise him and all he stands for...

And if it is not too "hipper than thou" to mention a local band (legends though they are), then Los Torpedos' polka-y version of In A Gadda Da Vida would be a world-wide smash if anyone outside of Austria had heard of them. Check it out:

Posted by Paul Herzberg at November 7, 2006 05:30 AM

Red Right Hand you say? You might enjoy Frank Bennett's extremely good lounge cover of that song. It's on the album Five O'Clock Shadow (which also features a lounge Under The Bridge which is worth the price of the album alone) which features extremely well done lounge covers and originals from the late 90s.

Cibo Matto's "About a Girl" is something else as well.

Posted by Will C at November 7, 2006 03:48 PM

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. Nuf said.


Posted by Jack Snipe at November 7, 2006 04:00 PM

Also, speaking of online Tribute albums, I also contributed a couple of songs to a Marcy Playground tribute:



hint: I DIDN'T cover "Sex and Candy." Scroll down to "the Whippoorwill"


Posted by Jack Snipe at November 7, 2006 04:08 PM

The Warren Zevon tribute, "Enjoy Every Sandwich" was worth getting to hear The Wallfowers do "Lawyers, Guns, and Money". Adam Sandler also did a very respectable job on "Werewolves of London".

And the Tom Jones/Cardigans cover of "Buring Down the House" blew me a away. (YouTube:

Posted by Duncan at November 7, 2006 04:34 PM

Oh... almost forgot. A great resource for searching out covers from a favourite artist, or covers of a favourite song is the Covers Project.

Posted by Duncan at November 7, 2006 04:40 PM

Nina Gordon's cover of Straight Outta Compton is top-notch: (bottom left).

While not my favorite cover ever (that going to Ben Folds' beautiful and excellent cover of Bitches Ain't Shit), I'd definitely give a nod to Adam Rixey's suggestion. Jonathan Coulton has put out some great stuff, and that cover of Baby Got Back is no exception. And, as a bonus, do yourself a favor and get more versions of it. Richard Cheese covers it (and much more), and so does a thrash band called Throwdown.

Posted by Evil Timmy at November 8, 2006 08:11 AM

I enjoy the cover of "The Sign" by The Mountain Goats -- look for the live version with commentary and audience sing-along. Whoo boy.

Posted by Karen at November 13, 2006 04:52 PM

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