The expectations and conventions governing cover versions vary from genre to genre. Jazz and easy listening are built upon the notion of representing already-known material and have therefore developed an interpretive language of their own, one based around the idea of “standards”. Folk music has a long history of interpreting centuries-old song fragments and offering them in new or not-so-new forms. Hip-hop and other sample-based music has radically redefined our understanding of such borrowing and recycling. Rock musicians, meanwhile, have tended to value self-penned material, and singer-songwriters are defined by their adherence to original work.
Like generic boundaries themselves, such observations are easily problematized. It does not seem at all surprising, then, when a folkie-singer-songwriter such as Northeast England-based Kathryn Williams releases an album of cover versions that draws heavily on the “songbooks” of post-1960s rock and pop composers. Such songs, by the likes of Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, and the Brothers Gibb are, after all, as enmeshed in the repertoire of contemporary standards as work by earlier writers such as Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, or Rodgers & Hart. Yet if this release was not altogether unexpected, it does still issue the same challenge that any covers collection demands: how to account for these versions of those songs.
It is a common practice, when discussing cover versions, to speak in terms of faithfulness or fidelity, but it is not always clear what people mean by such terms By “faithful”, do we expect the new version to be as close to the original as possible, or is it somehow truer to show one’s appreciation by radically reconfiguring the original, perhaps even making it unrecognizable? To what extent does an artist adhere to or depart from the original or most familiar version of a song? Certain much-covered artists — Bob Dylan, for example — like to take part in the game themselves, constantly reinventing their work so that the very concept of an “original version” is shattered.
The philosopher Jacques Derrida, with whose work it is always interesting to compare Dylan’s, once described this issue of fidelity in terms of the marriage vow. In order to show one’s commitment to a relationship, Derrida argued, the vow must constantly be restated and reinvented, the “I do” of today being necessarily different to the “I do” of yesterday. “Necessarily” because, between those moments, so much has intervened: the historical dimension of the relationship must be accounted for and never taken for granted.
Kathryn Williams chose to call her cover album Relations, thus highlighting the importance of her relationship to the material. The album was originally released in the UK in 2004 as the singer’s fourth solo release and is being given a North American release by Williams’s new label, One Little Indian, on the back of her latest album, The Quickening. Reportedly, Williams was not familiar with all the songs she elected to cover, with some being suggested to her by members of her band. Others came by way of previous cover versions, such as Nico’s take on Jackson Browne’s “These Days”.
Such cases remind us that the relationship between an original version and a cover, or series of covers, is one ultimately mediated by listeners, whose opinions regarding the faithfulness of interpretation will be guided by a number of factors. Williams’s “Easy Rider” brings less of a memory, for this listener, of the Byrds’ original than it does of Sandy Denny’s version, a connection enhanced by Williams’s status as a female folk-influenced singer with a Denny-like tendency to produce intimate, quietly devastating songs. Here, though, the comparison does not favor Williams; her version drifts by rather too swiftly, where Denny’s had flowed with the melancholy ache its lyric demanded.
Did we really need another “Hallelujah”, even back in 2004? Probably not, but Leonard Cohen’s song has established itself so strongly as a standard that we are undoubtedly destined to many more versions. This one is lovely but it doesn’t really add to other easily available attempts, not least those by the song’s composer. Sacrilege as it may be to Jeff Buckley fans (and even to Alexandra Burke fans), Cohen’s recent magisterial return to live performance has proven that no one else delivers this gem of a song with quite the same uncut charisma as its originator.
Perhaps the cover of Neil Young’s “Birds” works not because Williams changes it (she doesn’t), but rather due to the relative lack of exposure the song has experienced. Williams nails its avian fragility perfectly, simultaneously showcasing her vocal prowess and Young’s evocative, subtle songwriting. This is exactly what covers should deliver. There’s a similar feel to her reading of Lou Reed’s “Candy Says”, another delicate number from the same period, also to her takes on the Bee Gees’ mellow “I Started A Joke” and Big Star’s beautiful “Thirteen”. Lest we think that Williams’s reference points are entirely late ’60s/early ’70s, there are solid renditions of Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger” and Nirvana’s “All Apologies”, both drenched in the deceptively placid resonance that distinguishes Williams’s own contemporary material.
Indeed, listening to these songs, it seems that Williams has been drawn to establish relationships with male composers who were, for the most part, unburdened by either teleological or groove-based structures, a sort of anti-cock-rock. Unlike Tori Amos, who deliberately set out to present another face to the misogynistic material she covered on her Strange Little Girls album, Williams presents material that was always more sexually ambiguous. Interestingly, the raunchiest song on offer here is “A Guy What Takes His Time”, a number indelibly associated with Mae West even if it, like the other songs on Relations, was written by a man.
Amos and Williams represent the extremes of fidelity, one a radical reconfigurer of others’ work, the other seemingly content to offer whispered “I dos” that are obvious echoes of yesterday’s promises and regrets. This should not, however, be taken as a criticism of Williams’s project. There is something sustained and even slightly strange about her adherence to a sonic world of the past. Like the recent album by Midlake, a group with whom Williams has no other obvious connection, there exists a haunting quality to Relations which seems to emerge precisely from that murky sonic world, partly recognized, partly elusive, offering an irresistible invitation to explore it further.