Quality of cover songs is all in the interpretation

[21 June 2007]

By Greg Kot

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Bryan Ferry, the dashing crooner who has fronted Roxy Music off and on for the last 35 years, is a rarity in the rock era.

He sings cover songs. Lots of them.

In between Roxy projects and his own albums of original material, he has recorded no less than five albums devoted to the work of songwriters he admires. The latest, “Dylanesque” (Virgin), narrows the focus to the songs of a single artist: Bob Dylan.

In that respect, it’s the rock-era equivalent of an album such as “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook” or “Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim,” in which Sinatra immersed himself in Jobim’s bossa novas. Ferry is one of three rock icons to re-emerge in recent weeks with new work that puts a premium on vocal interpretation. Patti Smith’s “Twelve” (Columbia) is her first all-covers album, and “A Tribute to Joni Mitchell” (Nonesuch) finds a dozen artists, including Prince and Bjork, covering the Canadian-born songwriter’s work.

Through the `50s, vocalists depended on professional songwriters to provide them with material. Singers sang, writers wrote. Fitzgerald, Sinatra, Billie Holiday and countless other vocalists were celebrated for their ability to interpret the work of songwriters such as George and Ira Gershwin; Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht; and Hoagy Carmichael. The two most celebrated singers of the 20th Century - Sinatra and Elvis Presley - didn’t write their own music.

But with the rise of songwriters such as Bob Dylan and the Beatles, the art of interpretive singing went out of fashion, and was viewed with some suspicion by the rock audience. Rock singers who sang other people’s songs were seen as somehow less authentic.

Jon Brion, a songwriter and producer whose solo sets are frequently highlighted by astutely chosen cover songs, once put it this way: “In the past, we didn’t expect Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole to write songs. We expected emotional experience from them, and they delivered it. They delivered songs written by guys who sat in rooms all day drinking coffee. But not Dylan or the Beatles. Their example screwed up music for my generation. After them, people who didn’t write their own songs became uncool.”

Ferry runs counter to that trend, even though he knows he’s fighting uphill. “People have an awful prejudice against (covers albums) in principle,” he once said. “But to me there are few greater pleasures than losing yourself in a great song, where you forget about the accountants and mortgages.”

In the past, Ferry has refashioned songs of every ilk: John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” the Leslie Gore hit “It’s My Party,” Kurt Weill’s “September Song.” His 1973 solo debut, “These Foolish Things,” gave the art of interpretive singing a fiendish twist, as he pranced through Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and recast Beelzebub as a dapper playboy in the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”

Since then, he has recorded several more Dylan covers. With “Dylanesque,” out June 26, he dives into one of the deepest songbooks of the 20th Century, and emerges with his hair still perfect. He’s just twisted enough to play Dylan for the melodies, not the lyrics, and he turns the grizzled bard’s songs into sleek tunes gussied up with tambourines, finger cymbals and backing vocals. It’s disconcerting to hear the surrealism of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” played as pop, and stunning to hear the biliousness of “Positively 4th Street” channeled into bittersweet regret.

Not everything on this album is so successfully reimagined, but the best of it affirms that Ferry isn’t just a great singer, but a terrific listener and thinker. His smoothness masks a subversive streak that is essential to great interpretive singing: It’s not enough to just sing a great song, but to home in on its previously underappreciated details.

It’s a trait that Patti Smith has exhibited in the past. Though best known as a poet-turned-singer, and justly celebrated for her lyrics, she first made her mark by covering other people’s songs. Smith’s debut single was a version of the rock standard “Hey Joe,” and her radical reconfiguration of Them’s `60s garage-rock hit “Gloria,” written by Van Morrison, kicked off her landmark 1975 debut album, “Horses.”

She’s equally adventurous on “Twelve,” but the results aren’t nearly as revelatory. Her creaky string-band version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is an interesting experiment, but doesn’t improve on the already well-known original. And she sounds at wit’s end trying to punch her way through the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”

Like Smith, Joni Mitchell’s original songs continue to enchant generations of musicians. On “A Tribute to Joni Mitchell,” a number of her disciples try to unravel those tunes, many of which are elaborate puzzles defined by Mitchell’s multioctave voice, idiosyncratic time signatures and oblique melodies. Little wonder that Sufjan Stevens marches the breezy “Free Man in Paris” into a tar pit of fussy orchestration, and Bjork wanders like a little girl lost through “The Boho Dance.” But “A Case of You” brings out Prince’s androgynous sense of adventure, and Caetano Veloso gets mischievous with “Dreamland.” The Brazilian virtuoso dances with polyrhythmic drumming even as he digs into a lyric about colonialism that cuts close to home.

It’s the type of performance that can send a listener dashing back to the original with mind and ears opened anew to a song’s possibilities - an underappreciated service that Bryan Ferry has been providing for decades.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/quality-of-cover-songs-is-all-in-the-interpretation/