Covering Cover Songs

by Colin McGuire

5 May 2015

Cover songs don't have to be all that bad. Just listen to what Becca Stevens and Jason Moran have been doing lately, and you'll see.
Press photo / Becca Stevens 

“The cover phenomena started in the 1950s. It was an attempt by the record companies to reach out to more people by a way of reproducing original songs such that those are more appealing to a particular demography. Thus, it was commonplace for a group of White artists to ‘cover’ a song by Black artists. The motivation behind this approach by record companies was that the White (artists) never showed enough interest in Black artists, so they were given appealing songs by fellow White artists. However, during the process of producing cover songs, the original creator(s) (black artists) of the song didn’t receive proper acknowledgement, or any financial compensations for that matter. This was clearly racist, but the U.S. was racially divided in the 1950s so such (a) move wasn’t against the law. But what’s more telling was that the cover phenomena was an example of record companies showcasing their financial greed.”
“Early History of Cover Songs”, by David Thomson, Explore Rock ‘n’ Roll, 29 June 2013)


Such is what David Thomson wrote in 2013 on his blog, Explore Rock ‘n’ Roll. The title of the post is, as noted, “Early History of Cover Songs”, though I’d be willing to bet the practice goes back much further than the ‘50s. I mean, the melody to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is said to date back to the 1700s and God only knows how many times that children’s song has been performed, interpreted, covered, manipulated, and everything else in between over the last two-plus centuries.

Still, his argument that there was a boon in performing other people’s songs during the mid-1900s has at least some credence. And the reality that there was a time in American music during which scores of white artists seemingly had no problem picking up tunes written by African-American artists — and subsequently making the songs much more profitable and appealing in a racially unjust mainstream — is one impossible to debate. Look no further than the career arc of Elvis to prove as much.

But in today’s pop culture world, where social currency can oftentimes be predicated on one’s originality and artistic abilities — be it through music or writing or acting or painting or anything else tied to the right side of the human brain — cover songs are often stigmatized. Some argue that they serve as proof that various artists aren’t good enough to come up with their own material. Others view the practice as laziness, an inherent desire to monetarily capitalize on the talents of those who choose music as a livelihood.

Does a musician really deserve that quick $100 for mindlessly running through George Jackson’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” for the 8,482nd time on a Saturday night at some bar in Middle of Nowhere, Montana? Probably not.

Yet oddly enough, for as much of a snob as I can be about pretty much anything under the sun, I’ve been feeling the cover songs tide turn a bit in my mind. I know, I know, anybody looking to adhere to a perception of music credibility probably shouldn’t willingly admit that there’s a particular charm to hearing some lame version of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” on a weekend night while holding a camouflage-insulator wrapped can of beer. But before you judge, consider: What happens when artists actually work to make cover songs their own? What happens when legitimate, working, professional musicians decide to add their DNA to tried and true classics? And better yet, what happens when you hear some band perform a rendition of a song that you wouldn’t typically expect to hear covered?

These questions popped in my mind recently as I caught a set from pop singer Becca Stevens at the Rock and Roll Hotel in Washington, D.C. Of the ten tracks on her latest record, Perfect Animal, three of them aren’t hers. When I first heard the album a couple months ago, those three tracks were the first to stick with me. That’s not to suggest her original material isn’t worthwhile, of course — I’ve since fallen in love with the other seven tracks that appear on the record — but it does illustrate how valuable a perfectly placed, interesting choice of a cover song can be.

If you’re walking into an album for the first time from an artist you might not previously know much about, what gives you the most sense of comfort? What keeps you coming back on a very fundamental level? Is it the song you’ve never heard before, a song you’re not even sure you like yet? Or is it the more familiar, unexpected take on a track that you already know you liked years prior?

Its as if the Beatles covered Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” on Please Please Me. Sure, “I Saw Her Standing There” would ultimately go on to become one of the many classic tunes the Fab Four penned, but if you picked up that record without any previous knowledge about the band, which song are you going to listen to first? A version of a single that landed at No. 2 on Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 singles list of 1961? Or the first track on some new to you British band’s debut LP?

What struck me most about Stevens’ choices on Perfect Animal were the three covers she picked: Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love”, Usher’s “You Make Me Wanna” and Frank Ocean’s “Thinking About You”. Now, keep in mind that this comes from an artist about whom I would know nothing if not for her appearance on trumpeter Ambrose Akinmurse’s 2014 release, The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint (one of her songs, “Our Basement (Ed)”, was a favorite of mine for the year). Yet here, on her own album, instead of the jazz textures and frenetic structures that Akinmurse mastered throughout all of his most recent record, Stevens went with a 1997 pop-R&B mainstay, one of the great radio hits that the ‘80s produced, and then one of best songs from one of the best albums in 2012.

The night I saw Stevens, she was opening for Ben Sollee, performing to a group of people who presumably knew little to nothing about her. The audience was, for the most part, respectful for the duration of her set, though it wasn’t until she began to wind things down that you could see concertgoers beginning to move just a little bit more to the music and clap just a little bit louder at the end of each song. That’s because she hit them with “Thinking About You”, a little more than halfway through her time, before eventually offering up her groovy take on Usher’s mid-‘90s pop radio smash.

“You make me wanna leave the one I’m with/ Start a new relationship with you”, I saw the couple across from me mouth as they swayed to the sounds. Which was encouraging, considering how I spotted them looking at their phones just a song or two prior. It was evident that Stevens had won herself a few new fans at that set.

“I don’t know,” Stevens told me later that night when I asked how she picked which covers to record. Her arrangements are so interesting, I said, and I figured there had to be something behind the idea to cover two notable pop-R&B stars, especially when you realize how folky her previous record, Weightless, felt. Turns out, I was wrong. There was nothing particularly special about which songs she chose to make her own. Instead, the truth behind going with Usher and Frank Ocean was simple.

“I just really fucking love hip-hop,” the singer proclaimed after a pause. Her ideas for covers were born out of taste, they were selected as a fan, not as a composer. Yes, she twisted them up in a way previously unheard. And sure, she without question owned each tune. But at the end of the day, Stevens was little more than a big fan of those artists whose songs she chose to cover. Her interpretations may have been well-thought, but her decisions were reactionary.

Such is why I’ve learned to accept and appreciate original artists covering other artists’ work: for the most part, they mean it. You could walk into most any bar in the world and see most any band flippantly perform a set of covers that range from “Sweet Home Alabama” to “Jesse’s Girl” to “Bad Moon Risin’” to “I Want You to Want Me” and understand their intentions are inspired by the desire to have a good time and make some money. But put a lauded song in the hands of a very capable and very fearless artist? The possibilities are endless.

My case in point came a couple weeks after the Stevens show. Pianist a, along with an enlarged version of his Bandwagon, paid tribute to Thelonious Monk’s 1959 live record, At Town Hall, by performing the set in its entirety at the Kennedy Center (“In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall”, 28 March 2015). It was an event I had my eye on for months, being a fan of both Monk and Moran, knowing how much the former has meant to the latter in his maturation as an artist.

What I found was something I can only categorize as exceptional. Moran didn’t merely regurgitate the classic record note for note; rather, what was performed that evening was an entire reimagination of what happened in 1959. The whole thing was an experience, not a performance. Some of the more memorable compositions of the original set, like “Little Rootie Tootie” and “In Walked Bud”, were almost unrecognizable. Actually, one of the very few times when you truly felt like Town Hall was being replicated was at the very beginning, when the opening tones of “Thelonious” played through the house system and Moran walked to his piano and played along with the track. The rest, as it went, felt almost entirely modernized.

Which was exhilarating in all the best ways. Sure, I was under the impression that I would be hearing that 10-track record front to back without much variation. And yes, there was a part of me that wanted to hear Moran shadow Monk’s playing more than 50 years after it was originally put on tape. But as the band marched through the audience like a New Orleans second line to cap the evening, it dawned on me that the MacArthur Genius Grant recipient had no interest in going through the motions. Instead, his intentions dealt with embodying the spirit of Monk, they dealt with bringing the jazz icon to life rather than laying him back down to rest.

Press photo of Jason Moran from Jason Moran.com

Press photo of Jason Moran from Jason Moran.com

And that’s what a great cover song can do: it captures the essence of the original recording while staying true to whatever it is the artist at hand brings to the table. It’s a collaboration of sorts. There’s an original idea out there, great on its own, floating through the ether, and then another capable, smart and quixotic perspective comes in, adds a new flavor to the pot, and ultimately enriches what was initially conceived. That’s what Becca Stevens does with her Perfect Animal renditions. That’s what Jason Moran did with songs from one of Thelonious Monk’s more memorable live performances.

“It’s hard to believe that anyone can perform a Bob Dylan song better than Bob Dylan,” Michael Gallucci wrote on the website Ultimate Classic Rock before listing ten covers he believed were better than the original versions. “But two cuts on our list of 10 Cover Songs Better Than the Originals were written by the master singer-songwriter and then made even better by someone else. But Dylan is not alone here. Rock legends like David Bowie and Fleetwood Mac also saw songs they took the time to write, record and hammer into their distinctive styles get bested by other artists. It’s a tricky thing to take someone else’s song and then make it completely your own —- to the point where most people forget about the original versions altogether.” (“10 Cover Songs Better Than The Originals”)

Tricky, indeed. But as I’ve recently learned, when a new artist is able to defy the odds and truly make the listener forget about the original version of the song he or she attempts to embody, what’s created is an enthralling piece of expansion, a wake for compositions whose funerals might have occurred decades prior. With great interpretations of great songs, however, both Stevens and Moran have ensured that some pieces of music might be gone, but for now, at least, they’ll be anything but forgotten.

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