Though this may be the time of year when cloying pop covers of Christmas songs are picked up from far too many supermarket checkout lines, let it not sour you on all covers completely. Shearwater have a great album full of songs from its tourmates entitled Fellow Travelers, and the band’s Jonathan Meiburg lists all kinds of reasons for playing covers over at the Talkhouse. He lists plenty of reasons (it’s easy; it’s hard; it’s fun), but also touches on some phenomenally simple explanations for what makes great covers tick: “What makes a song a song? Is it the lyric? Is it the melody? How much can you distress a song without injuring its soul?” Shearwater approached many of these questions on Travelers, and the artists listed below used these selfsame queries to make the cover an artform all its own.
1. Nina Simone
Simone is a legendary performer in her own right, and her stable of classic songs is huge. But she should also be known as a foremost interpreter of other peoples’ material, and her takes on classics like “Strange Fruit” (sampled by Kanye West for his “Blood on the Leaves”) and “I Put a Spell on You” are equally classic in their own way. This is due to Simone’s malleable voice, a tremendous instrument that she seemed to possess absolute and total control over at every moment, dropping in vibrato and speak-singing at the most opportune moments. A good amount of this can be attributed to Simone’s upbringing at Methodist revival meetings, where she learned what could be her most astounding recording: “Sinnerman”. In her grasp the song wheels and writhes and she draws out every howl, and her band holds back or charges forward with her dexterous piano runs. It is pure spiritual power.
2. Greg Dulli
If punk rock can be accused of musical ahistoricism — and particularly into the second and third waves of hardcore I think it can — then Greg Dulli became its course corrector. Over the course of his time in the Afghan Whigs, the Twilight Singers, and as a solo artist, Dulli covered Ella Fitzgerald, Freda Payne, John Coltrane, and Billie Holiday live and on record. Importantly, Dulli treats each song as a living composition, repurposing melodies from other songs, as on the medley of the Supremes’ “My World Is Empty Without You” and “I Hear a Symphony” that closes the 1994 What Jail Is Like EP. Live, he intersperses cuts from all of his bands with covers woven seamlessly into them; he’s taken to performing “Faded”, from Black Love, with a bit of “Purple Rain” tacked on the end. And importantly, he doesn’t keep his tastes limited to the past, with performances of songs by TLC, Drake, and Frank Ocean coming in recent years.
3. Mark Kozelek
Of all the artists on this list, Kozelek might be the only to devote several separate cover albums to an individual artist: Bon Scott-era AC/DC and Modest Mouse for What’s Next to the Moon and Tiny Cities, recorded under his own name and as Sun Kil Moon, respectively. Kozelek displays a flattening influence on his choice of covers that nonetheless registers as a positive, as he can make any song sound as if he wrote it. By stripping songs everything besides chords and basic melodies he can recast them into Koz-ian shapes through finger-picked guitar and a plaintive voice. This might all sound very coffee house if only Kozelek were not a master guitarist who constructs asymmetrical figures out of basic progressions, drawing out the beauty of music that the hippest among us would probably disdain. How many of us would cop to enjoying a Kiss song otherwise?
4. Chris Thile
To many people the mandolin virtuoso might be better known for his covers of Pavement, Radiohead, and the Strokes than his original compositions, which, while am absolute disservice to his incredible writing skill, is nonetheless a compliment to his knowledge of composition. Live, his current outfit the Punch Brothers bust out seamless bluegrass covers of “Kid A”, “Reptilia”, and “Just What I Needed”, all skill, no kitsch. At the end of 2013 they even released a covers EP that featured, improbably but excitingly, “Icarus Smicarus” by noise-rock champs mclusky. If Kozelek’s talent is in paring down, then Thile tears each song apart for parts and recombines them illogically. The treated voices of “Kid A” are taken by the bass, its sampled rhythm stabs from Thile’s mandolin. But when he needs to play it straight, he does: the band’s cover of classic “Moonshiner” is hushed and reverent. When I saw them perform in Ithaca in 2012, the band simply stepped to the front of the stage and let the room carry the song away.
5. Chan Marshall
When approach another artist’s music one can be reverent or one can be subversive, but Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, travels neither path. She is a master appropriator, taking bits here and bits there and refashioning them, sometimes into her own songs, sometimes under their original names. On The Covers Record, she strips away everything from the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” beyond its immortal refrain, reduces the Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason” to a heartbreaking bottom, and adds a plodding simplicity to “Wild Is the Wind”. But on Moon Pix her approach truly comes to the fore. By completely changing the key of the song and gender of the narrator of “Moonshiner”, Marshall may have crafter the definitive version, and when she wails “We’re all going to hell”, you believe it. But, to me, her most powerful moment arrives approximately halfway through “Metal Heart” when apropos of nothing and yet everything she picks “I once was lost / But now I’m found / Was blind but now I see” out of “Amazing Grace” with straightforwardness and conviction, her double-tracked vocals splitting and blinding the heart for one small moment. If the purpose of a cover is to channel, not copy, the original, then Marshall is a master.
6. Yo La Tengo
Though both as itself and in its alter-ego Condo Fucks, Yo La Tengo has recorded numerous covers,and flexes its knowledge of music past and present when it plays live. They’ve done Neil Young, Blondie, Sun Ra, X-Ray Spex, the Temptations, and countless others, both as an extension of its noise-pop and played straight. As part of the band’s periodic “Spinning Wheel” tours, shows can be entirely covers (as the Condo Fucks), among other options (for instance, a script reading for an entire episode of Seinfeld). And with guests at its yearly Hanukkah shows, the band busts out as many songs as it can think of.
7. Billie Holiday
Calling someone a “cover artist” can in some ways be considered a denigration, but for Holiday it is anything but. It was her take on standards like “Easy” that became absolute jazz classics and today we associate these songs so strongly with her that even Robert Christgau called her “uncoverable”. Her most famous, “Strange Fruit”, was (despite her statements to the contrary) not written with the singer in mind, but who can today associate the song with anyone but her? It is her diction, the sparse piano, her absolute command of each word and the weight therein that we remember. She is definitive.
8. Johnny Cash
This whole list could have easily been country singers. Due to a reverence for standards in the genre (as well as the structure of publishing houses), country artists spent (and still spend) their time covering and interpreting the works of others to success and fame. While many of Cash’s biggest hits were self-written, “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues” being but two examples, he also proved a key diviner of classics, and many of his “classic” albums contain numerous co-writes or outright covers from writers like Harlan Howard. And then, of course, there are the American Recordings albums and late-career hits like Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” that Cash rendered definitive.
9. Emmylou Harris
Case in point, another legendary country artist. Harris uses her clarion-call of a voice to turn the musings of whiskey-stained men clearer and more beautiful than they had ever been recorded before. Her first few major label albums are full of songs by Townes Van Zandt, Buck Owens, the Louvin Brothers, and old duet partner Gram Parsons, a rollicking version of whose “Luxury Liner” gave Harris’ 1977 album its name and whom she would cover for much of the rest of her career. In many cases, Harris’ versions remain the most popular, or are the basis for later, more successful versions; “Pancho and Lefty” is given dancing pedal steel and a cowboy beat that would inspire Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson’s synth-bedecked 1983 hit, a far cry from Van Zandt’s sparse original.
10. Otis Redding
The man is known as a good many things: a fantastic singer, a killer bandleader, a master showman, and a kickass writer. His library of soul and blues standards was extensive and he could tear a room to the ground with any of them. But let’s concentrate on his cover of immortal Rolling Stones hit “Satisfaction”, because Redding and his shit-hot band burn it down and pull it back up again as something all the more exciting. As featured on Otis Blue, it’s an insistent stomper, as much force given to the horns, saxophone, and drums as the riff, and Redding making up the words because, beyond the chorus, he claims he didn’t know them. It respects the heart of the original but consumes it anyway.