There's a right way and a wrong way to do a cover. More than that, there's a thin line between the two.
Silk is back. Not the fabric, but the R&B group of the '90s, known for producing "baby-making music" and for bringing desire to a lyrical boil (as in the single "Freak Me" -- "Let me lick you up and down / 'Til you say stop"). But the group -- founded by Gary Glenn, Johnathan Rasboro, Tim Cameron, and Jimmy Gates -- is back in name only, as their latest disc, Always & Forever, presents us with a collection of covers and a heavy duty blast from the '80s.
Always & Forever reminds us of a fact we often take for granted or simply don't stop to consider -- singers and musicians are fans of other singers and musicians who, if you care to drag this out, were themselves fans of singers and musicians. Artists listen to other artists. They learn from each other and are inspired by one another. Out of respect, artists pay homage to their influences in a number of ways. India.Arie, for example, dedicated a song on her debut album, Acoustic Soul, to Stevie Wonder ("Wonderful"). Common crafted an entire album of eclectic and innovative material (called Electric Circus) in honor of his inspirations. In particular, he showed his reverence for Jimi Hendrix via the track, "Jimi Was a Rock Star". Likewise, Rosie Gaines paid tribute to Marvin Gaye on "I Want You" (the opener from her LP Closer Than Close) by including samples of his vocals in the background. And, although Rosie Gaines's song has different lyrics, "I Want You" is also a Marvin Gaye title. Mos Def also paid tribute to Marvin Gaye with "Modern Marvel", from his second album "The New Danger", using a similar method of vocal samples.
The most prevalent method for saluting an artist or a band is to perform a "cover". It's also the most abused and misused method, as I'm honestly afraid of what will happen if one more artist attempts one more Marvin Gaye remake. I fear the delicate balance between originality and fakery will be tipped in favor of the latter, causing the polar caps to melt, suspending us all in a deluge that can only be reversed by playing the original of Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues".
Let's face it. It's not easy to "redo" a popular song. Usually, the song has already become associated with a particular artist or style. In fact, "not easy" is an understatement -- the task is downright daunting. Nevertheless, Silk's Always & Forever offers ten such remakes for your perusal.
This is the group's seventh release. Although Silk's previous albums have contained remakes, those albums were not exclusively comprised of covers. Judging by the material the silky singers chose to revisit, they had their work cut out for them: Switch's "There'll Never Be", Prince's "Adore", Heatwave's "Always & Forever", the System's "Don't Disturb This Groove", Al B. Sure's "Nite & Day", Blue Magic's "Sideshow", Michael Jackson's "Lady in My Life", Shalamar's "A Night to Remember", Quincy Jones's "Secret Garden (Sweet Seduction Suite)", and the Deele's "Two Occasions".
Much like Boyz II Men's 1994 cover album Throwback, Silk's Always & Forever contains songs made famous by a legion of R&B heavyweights. Not that a band like Silk should be dismissed as "lightweight", but the fact that these '80s classics will always and forever be linked to specific artists adds another set of expectations. If an artist writes and sings an original song, it's usually forgivable if I don't like it. I figure, "Hey, maybe I'll like another one." But let an artist deliver a poor interpretation of a well-known song and all hell breaks loose: "Oh, no they didn't try to sing 'Papa Was a Rolling Stone' like that!"
Such is the Pharaoh's Curse that accompanies a classic song. Don't let the "Covers 'R' Us" presentation of American Idol fool you. If you really want to sing "Natural Woman", then listen to Aretha Franklin's version a thousand times, and then follow that up by listening to as many covers of the song as you can. Then decide whether you want to do it or risk pulling an Icarus in your attempt to wax nostalgic.
It happens all the time. Ever watched Showtime at the Apollo, the talent contest for amateurs seeking applause, exposure, and top honors? Typically, the contestants are singers -- though they may also be poets, dancers, comedians, or instrumentalists -- and they usually choose well-known (and well-worn) tunes by R&B and soul music legends. A strong showing garners applause. Whichever performer receives the most applause becomes the champ. On the other hand, if things don't go well, the crowd is allowed -- or encouraged, actually -- to boo the offender straight off stage. On one version of the show, a tap dancer jumps into the fray to usher the booed performer out of the spotlight, much like Savion Glover's character in Spike Lee's film Bamboozled.
Silk's Always & Forever covers wouldn't get booed. During each song, you get the impression that these guys are real fans of the original versions and the original artists. But, for me, the best covers are true interpretations of their source material. They are successful because they depart from the original versions, or the most popular ones, in a way that showcases the cover artist's creativity. Here, Silk's work never finds a point of departure or creativity. These versions are so faithful to their predecessors that the results resonate with mimicry rather than interpretations, presenting Silk as a group of skilled fans rather than musical innovators in their own right.
When I saw the album's track list, I was skeptical. I won't even pretend I pressed 'Play' with a completely open mind. As Silk member Gary Glenn explains in the press release:
"If someone has the audacity to do a Michael Jackson number or a Prince tune and do it well, or to really do justice to "The Secret Garden", then they walk away with respect from the audience. That's what we want."
Did it seem like "audacity" for Silk to even attempt to sing "Adore"? Yep. Did they do justice to the tunes on this collection? Sure, they did. So can Silk get the respect Gary Glenn was referring to? Probably so, but that's "respect" from a live audience. Silk's rendition of "Adore" parrots every high note and croon of Prince's original arrangement, complete with background vocals and sound-alike instrumentals. I actually thought it was Prince singing at first, or at least a sample of Prince's voice. As a hardcore Prince fan, I'm impressed, and, as you might imagine, hardcore fans of any artist are a tough bunch to win over. Problem is, just because I'm impressed by the imitation, it doesn't make it anything more than an imitation. Instead of demonstrating Silk's artistry, Silk's "Adore" basically reminds me why Prince is so great. The same thing happened with Al B. Sure's "Nite & Day", the System's "Don't Disturb This Groove", and the rest of the tunes -- I was inspired to quit listening to Silk so I could listen to the originals instead.
As long as we're talking about Prince, I thought Chaka Khan already explained the secret to redoing a Prince song: you have to make it your own. When Chaka Khan recorded Prince's I Feel for You (1984), Chaka-Chaka-Chaka-Chaka Khan (as the rapper in the song called her) turned it into a different song, complete with an emcee, stronger synthesizers, a harmonica solo, and booming percussion. Not to mention the added layer of interpretation that comes from a woman singing a song previously sung by a man. You might say, "Well, Prince's 'I Feel for You' wasn't a famous Prince song when Chaka did it." Okay, then, what about when Tom Jones performed "Kiss", accompanied by the Art of Noise? It was weird, but Jones's attempt to find his own sound and comfort zone with the song was respectable. That's how you cover a Prince song. Otherwise, you get caught trying to out-Prince Prince, which is just not a good idea. Examples of When Doing Prince Goes Wrong would include Ginuwine's "When Doves Cry", TLC's "If I Was Your Girlfriend", Mariah Carey's "Beautiful Ones" (although Carey's approach to the song as a duet was admirable), Prince's own self-described new master of 1999 (see, even the Artist Formerly Known as Prince had trouble covering Prince songs!), and now Silk's cover of "Adore".
In my view, it's not enough to say, "Well, at least Silk can introduce these classics to a new generation of listeners." First, that's assuming this so-called "new generation" hasn't heard the tunes, which isn't necessarily the case. We shouldn't automatically assume that youth equals ignorance. Second, even if there's a generation of listeners who never listened to MJ's Thriller, Prince's Sign "O" The Times, or Al B. Sure's In Effect Mode, it's not like these works somehow disintegrated, creating a need for Silk to step in and re-sing them as closely as possible to their original form. The original versions still exist.
The best reason, then, to listen to a remake, is to hear something fresh, to listen to a band like Silk offer an interpretation of the original by being creative so as to make the experience special. Unfortunately, this never happens. And the disappointing part is that Silk's talented vocalists probably would have been up to the challenge.