While there are some very excellent covers that stick with the basic formula of the original, my heart will always lie with those that get adventurous. Covers that break the original down to the bare bones and then layer it back up with something totally different. There is something amazing in listening to a song for a few seconds or even minutes before you realize that you know that song. To be surprised by a song you've known for years is one of the greatest things about an interesting cover.
"I Heard it Through the Grapevine" - Bill Frisell
From the album East/West
Original by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
Know primarily as a jazz guitarist Bill Frisell has also made inroads into folk, country, rock and noise. His fantastic East/West live album features covers of such diverse artists as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, George & Ira Gershwin, Henry Mancini, Leadbelly and of course this Motown classic. Frisell's version is long (clocking in right at eight minutes) and sinister (check out those growling bass notes) and brilliant in every way.
I had heard of Frisell for awhile from various musical friends and I used this album to check him out (mainly because it included so many covers.) This is the first track of disk one and I knew within a minute I was hooked. Frisell doesn't sing so you have to use musical queues to even know what song it is. It starts out slow and languid so unless you are reading the song list you might not have a clue as to what you are hearing. The music is dark and fire-breathing but then the familiar melody slips in with the guitar and you know you are in for something bizarre, interesting and yet somehow familiar. They use the basic structure of the song to create something winding, foreboding and beautiful. The rest of the album is just as good, if not better.
"Heart of Gold" - Tori Amos
From the album Strange Little Girls
Original by Neil Young
Strange Little Girls was a concept album in which Tori Amos covered songs written and originally performed by men reinterpreted from a female's perspective. In an album where she covers Eminem's "97 Bonnie and Clyde" and reworks the Beatles "Happiness is a Warm Gun" into a discussion about Gun Control one could argue that "Heart of Gold" is the less interesting cover on the album. But the Neil Young classic is such a staple of rock radio and she renders it so nearly unrecognizable that I just couldn't not talk about it.
Tori's version is filled with pulsating bass lines, a screeching, repetitive guitar lick and layered vocals that sound absolutely nothing like the original. While Neil Young's version is a very simple, straight-forward rock song, Tori turns it into a dance anthem touched with a dark, almost menacing wanting that its more likely to wind up at a haunted house than pop radio.
"Man in the Box" - Richard Cheese
From the album Aperitif for Destruction
Original by Alice in Chains
Some covers are designed more for laughs than masterful musicality. There are lots of bluegrass covers of heavy metal tunes and if you look around a bit you can find tunes like this one which turn grizzly hard rock into shining lounge acts. Richard Cheese's take on the depressive Alice in Chains grunge number takes full advantage of the latter. There's something really rather hilarious about hearing Cheese's cheesy vocals underlaid with an upbeat piano and swinging backbeat sing the lyrics "I'm the dog who gets beat, shove my nose in shit." You can feel Cheese's smile (and Jerry Cantrells' scorn) from here.
Its a song that will likely wear out its welcome quckly, but for now it retains its fresh, silliness. For me anyways.
"Just Like Heaven" - The Watson Twins
From the album Fire Songs
Original by the Cure
If there's one thing I will never complain about in any song, and especially in covers its beautiful harmonies. There are few things sweeter in this world than multiple voices blending together perfectly. The Watson Twins take one of the few Cure songs that isn't depressing and make it heavenly. They've slowed it down a bit, taken out the bouncier edges and made it simply gorgeous. The girls voices mold together in perfect harmony like the fishes in the deep blue sea.
I adore the original, its one of my favorite Cure songs, but I might just have to give the edge to the Twins here. Its the kind of song that will likely make it onto one of my Valentine's mixed tapes for my wife. The kind of tune to play underneath the dreamy holding hands in the midst of a flowery field scene in that movie you always wanted to make. Perfect is what.