Covering another artist’s song is a fantastic way for someone to demonstrate his or her musical skill in light of another’s. It seems that the notion of deconstruction is quite an accurate description of a song, for now a song written in one genre can be entirely re-interpreted in another. The Eagles’ “Hotel California”, a song coming mostly from the white-dominated ‘70’s California rock, was masterfully re-interpreted this year in the song “American Wedding” by Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean. Ocean took the music of “Hotel California”, a classic image of American societal decay, and sung over it lyrics about the decay of American romance. Though technically not a “cover”, that track nonetheless demonstrates the malleability of a song once it has been released.
The following 10 songs are prime examples of tracks that not only stand as great songs in their own right, but also as powerful re-interpretations of already great tunes. Ranging from folk to psychedelia to piano confessional, these songs all attest to the ability of music to unite people with distinct voices. As it turns out, unplugged covers aren’t just for bad coffee houses.
Note: Some of these tracks are not entirely acoustic, but in the cases in which there are non-acoustic instruments, they are not the central instrument in the song. I based my picks on songs that were either (a) entirely acoustic or (b) dominated by and large by acoustic instrumentation.
Gnarls Barkley’s soul-laden 2006 hit “Crazy” was an instant smash upon its release, which no doubt contributed to the large number artists who chose to cover it, the Violent Femmes most notably. Folk balladeer Ray LaMontagne’s version of the song remains the best of the covers, having much to do with the emotive power present in his re-interpretation. There’s a longing in the song as a result of LaMontagne’s slightly husky delivery as well as the key change, which shifts the tune’s tone from soulful to yearning. The high-pitched falsetto in the chorus of Gnarls Barkley’s version is replaced by LaMontagne’s more inquisitive turn; here, it sounds much more like he’s seriously wondering if he is crazy. Given how good this is, the clear answer to that question is no.
(Where the Light Is: John Mayer Live in Los Angeles, 2008)
“Free Fallin’” is something of a classic rock standby, which means that more artists than one could count have probably covered it. But when John Mayer performed it in this 2007 Los Angeles concert, he took a somewhat worn (but nonetheless great) piece and put an entirely different spin on it. For this concert, Mayer began with a brief, five-song acoustic set, putting incredible turns on his own tracks like “Neon”. The set concluded with this Tom Petty cover, and Mayer’s subdued performance turned the song into something quite new. By slowing the initial version’s tempo down and including a slide guitar, Mayer transformed “Free Fallin’” utilizing a bluesiness that he did so brilliantly on 2006’s Continuum. Mayer’s career has had ups and downs, but in those five acoustic songs he may have been at his peak.
(Calgary single, 2011)
Bonnie Raitt’s 1991 soft-rock single was no doubt a product of its time, and as a result it now sounds more than a little bit faded. Soft-rock, at least on the mainstream radio, has lost the popularity it once had. As a result, the song has taken the form of the piano-led confessional by PopMatters’ top two artists of 2011: Bon Iver and Adele. Though both are brilliant covers, the best of the two is Bon Iver’s. Justin Vernon’s famed falsetto is back at it again with this rendition; his gorgeous vocal adds a much needed power to the unrequited love of the song’s lyrics, which were initially dampened by the genre’s cheesiness. The cover’s emotional nakedness is what made Vernon’s breakthrough debut For Emma, Forever Ago so good, and it’s equally resonant here.
(The Bedlam in Goliath, 2008)
Admittedly, the initial recording of Nick Drake’s “Things Behind the Sun” was quite stripped-down. This cover actually adds a few extra instruments to that recording, but in doing so the song becomes something quite haunting. The Bedlam in Goliath is emblematic of the Mars Volta’s excessiveness—at close to an hour-and-a-half of crazed, time signature-shifting prog, the record is a wearing listen. The iTunes edition of the album, however, closes with this track, which serves both as a good calming down of the record’s grandstanding and as a captivating cover version. The recording is not entirely acoustic; there are some psychedelic guitar washes that add to the dark allure of the track, but the song is predominately occupied by Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s falsetto and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s fingerpicking. Drake’s original version is a gorgeous folk ballad, but these Mexican proggers took the already great song and made it so that its dark echoes will ring in the brain days after hearing it.
(Enjoy Every Sandwich: The Songs of Warren Zevon, 2004)
Warren Zevon will go down in the books as one of America’s most underrated songwriters. His brand of literary cynicism is something that few have come close to matching. However, despite his brilliance, it was often the case that Zevon’s music couldn’t match up to his lyrical prowess. Case in point: the title track of 2002’s My Ride’s Here. The lyrics captured Zevon’s humor in the face of death (the song documents a rather strange run-in with Jesus and John Wayne at a Marriott hotel), a theme that would later be fully expounded upon in his final album, the 2003 masterpiece The Wind. The music to “My Ride’s Here” wasn’t as good, unfortunately; in context of the album it ended the LP musically in an anticlimactic fashion. Bruce Springsteen’s moving cover for the 2004 tribute record Enjoy Every Sandwich remedies that problem. Recorded right after Zevon died, Springsteen transforms the song from the Eagles-esque rock of the initial recording into an accordion-backed folk piece. Springsteen’s voice may have distinctive differences from Zevon’s, but here he captures the spirit of Zevon’s words as only an old friend and fellow songwriter could.