Curled Up Under the Covers - 10 further cover songs worth a listen

Jan 7, 2005

The Bottom Line The more these songs change, the more they stay the same...

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Talk about a cliché... That phrase has been around so long I doubt if any two people could fully agree on all the subtleties of what it's supposed to mean. Cynics will cite it when they want to remind us that the ways of the world suck, and will continue to do so no matter what is done to change them. Optimists will use the phrase to say that no matter how bad things may seem, there's always going to be ray of hope that remains. Hackneyed writers will employ the phrase when they can't think of anything better to hook in their readers...


So, moving on then. Being a big fan of cover songs, I look at the phrase like this: there are songs out there written so well, that no matter what other artists do to mix things around, the sheer, inescapable excellence of the song still shines through. Yes, I realize that there are always bound to be artists out there that will manage to destroy even the strongest classics (Fred Durst, we're looking in your direction), but it's easy enough to ignore these cases as exceptions to the rule and accept the whole "the more things change" premise stand as a given.

I've gone on in great length about great, intriguing cover songs before, but their ranks are almost limitless if you're willing to keep your ears open. Without further ado, here's another set of ten cover songs that not only live up to the quality of the original, but also manage to redefine just what the original can be.

Comfortaby Numb by Scissor Sisters (originally by Pink Floyd)

More decadent than an ancient Roman orgy, Scissor Sister's cover of Pink Floyd's tale of drugs, desperation, alienation, and escape comes to us straight out of the heyday of Studio 54. (Never mind that the song came out two and a half decades after disco died.) The thumping disco beat, sharp staccato guitar riffs, and shimmering keyboard fills that make up the song's infectiously danceable rhythm manages to out-glam Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The real sell for those willing to surrender to the song's decadent self-indulgence, though, come with the cheeky falsetto vocals that put the Brother's Gibb to shame. Guilty pleasure? Hell yeah.

(Found on the album Scissor Sisters)

Wind Cries Mary by Jamie Cullum (originally by Jimi Hendrix)

Hendrix breathed life into the electric guitar with the songs he wrote. To cover one of his tunes without including any sort of guitar into the arrangement in unthinkable, but that's just what British piano wunderkind Jamie Cullum does. With a syncopated cakewalk rhythm and a handful of horns laying down lazy fills between the verses, Cullum's Wind Cries Mary sounds like something recorded in the New Orleans of days long gone. There's an inescapable swagger in Cullum's vocals with their hint of English accent and in his keyboards with their layered jazz chords. The original Wind Cries Mary may have given us a glimpse of Hendrix's subtler, more sentimental side, but Cullum's piano driven reinterpretation fills the song with a whole new cheeky charm and bravado that adds a whole new dimension to the song.

(Found on the album Twentysomething)

Dancing Queen by Milo Bender (originally by Abba)

Dancing Queen has become a staple for cover bands and karaoke superstars over the years. It's gotten so that when we hear someone else perform the song, we know exactly what to expect, unless, of course, you're hearing Milo Bender's version. Bender, a folk artist by trade, strips away all of the glimmer and glitz of the disco era that Abba built the song upon, stripping everything down to a long acoustic guitar with occasional fills from flute or harmonica. There's a very wistful, downtempo Celtic folk vibe that runs throughout the song, and only the American accent in Bender's low-key, melancholy vocals belie the fact that the song wasn't recorded in Ireland. The biggest surprise, though, comes in the song's rhythm. Instead of the familiar, solid disco beat, we get a rolling waltz tempo in steady 3/4 time, helping to give us the feel of an Irish wake (once it's moved on to the maudlin drinking phase) without losing any of the song's charm.

(Found on the compilation 20 More Explosive Fantastic Rockin' Smash Hit Explosions!)

Love Grows by Freedy Johnston (originally by Edison Lighthouse)

Say what you want about bubblegum pop from back in the sixties and seventies, you can't deny how damn catchy of a style it was. Some of those acts even managed to stir up some genuine quality in their song writing. Love Grows may have originally been a bit sappy, but it had some incredible hooks. Good hooks last forever, and when Freedy Johnson breathed new life into the song for the twenty first century, the transition to modern power pop fit the song exquisitely. The melody stays the same, but now those rhythms mix with layer upon layer of crunchy guitar power chords and vocal harmonies that beg the listener to sing along. As Johnston adds in some tight electric guitar soloing before the last verse, it's clear that this update is far more bold than anything that might have been heard back at the height of bubblegum music, but at the same time, its every bit as warm and bright as anything that streamed over the AM airwaves three decades ago.

(Found on the album Right Between the Promises)

Coconut by Fred Schneider (originally by Harry Nilsson)

Few pop songs capture the same laid-back, tropical feel as Harry Nilsson's hangover-cure-set-to-music Coconut. Apart from replacing the original acoustic guitar rhythms with electric ones, Fred Schneider's rendition of the song also starts out with that same relaxed, lazy tone. As fans know, though, there's nothing relaxed and lazy about Fred Schneider. After forty-five seconds of jangly yet calm music, all hell breaks loose. The guitars crank it up to eleven and drip with distortion. The drums go all freaky jungle crazy, forgetting for the remainder of the song that cymbals are only meant to highlight the rhythm, not fight their way to the front. Schneider's vocals go from a lazy whisper to a frenetic yell. With his distinctive loopy, nasal voice, Schneider sounds like something out of a cartoon, and not one of those wholesome Saturday morning cartoons, but one of those subversive cartoons you see late at night on cable. It may not be what Nilsson originally had in mind, but it's such a complete distinctive shift for the song that we can't help sitting up to take notice.

(Found on the compilation Every Sings Nilsson)

Steppin' Out by Fantastic Plastic Machine (originally by Joe Jackson)

For decades, the Japanese have taken the biggest successes of western business and technology, revamped it suit their own particular style, and sold it back to us with considerable success. Fantastic Plastic Machine's cover of Steppin' Out shows us that they're just as capable of doing the same thing with music. The group from Japan's Shibuya-Kei district blends sophistication and class with modern dance production on this cover, bits of bossa nova and bachelor-pad exotica with layers of dance-club style percussion loops. The vocals are a bit cold and impersonal, but it's not the signing that sells the song, but rather the music. With soft noodling on an electric piano, soft, jazzy guitar chords, strings that build little by little to virtual wall of sound, and some solidly constructed drum loops dance around one another without clashing, Steppin' Out sounds like Burt Bacharach and Cole Porter teaming up to take on the trendy dance clubs of Europe. Leave it to the Japanese to take so many bits of western music, sew them all together, and sell them back to us in a manner we could never achieve.

(Found on the album The Fantastic Plastic Machine)

Hurricane by Ani DiFranco (originally by Bob Dylan)

It's a folk epic if ever there was one. Dylan's original version blended tight storytelling with political protest as he sang the story of former professional boxer Ruben Carter (subject of the recent movie The Hurricane). Ani DiFranco is no stranger to storytelling and political protest, so covering the song feels a natural fit, but she takes the feel of the song in an entirely different direction. Gone is the wistful violin solo than ran all through Dylan's original along with any semblance of Dylan's rhythmic guitar work. Instead, DiFranco lays the song over a funky bass rhythm that repeats throughout the song, along with sharp, slicing electric keyboard fills, giving the cover version a decidedly anti-folk feel. The sheer outrage that filled Dylan's voice in the original is gone, but in its place is a greater emphasis on the storytelling aspects of the song, punctuating the emotional rollercoaster ride of the true-life events.

(Found on the EP Swing Set)

The Joker by Fatboy Slim (Originall by the Steve Miller Band)

The Joker is one of those charmingly misogynistic songs from back in the seventies that have been grandfathered into a soft spot in our collective heart despite such overtly smarmy lines like "I really love your peaches, wanna shake your tree." The song is such a classic that we overlook both its political incorrectness and its cheesiness without a second thought. That classic status, though, isn't enough to keep dance pop impresario Norman Cook from imprinting his over-the-top production antics onto the song. Amid plenty of electronic loops, we get the song's familiar bass line on what sounds almost like a clavinet synthesizer along with some gospel piano chords and raunchy garage band saxes to fill out the sound. The guitar riff from Mr. Big Stuff seems to float in and out of the mix as Fatboy Slim stirs together his solid beats at a relaxed, mellow pace. But the song's highlight comes with the vocals by guest singer Bootsy Collins. With his goofy-sweet, cartoonish delivery, Collins sounds like Easy Reader after a few drinks at the local singles club, mellowly crooning "oo, ee, baby, I wanna show you a good time..."

(Found on the album Palookaville)

Can't Get You Out of My Head by the Flaming Lips (originally by Kylie Minogue)

Kylie Minogue chose an awfully prophetic title for her 2002 dance hit, as it truly was hard to dislodge the song from our brains after hearing it. Hearing just a few notes is enough to bring the whole song instantly to mind. Artsy rockers The Flaming Lips have manage to twist the song around so much in their arrangement that the original is no where to be found. After an intro that blends acoustic guitar with a full string section to create something akin to the theme from an old spaghetti western, Wayne Coyne sets off on a pain-filled, tortured trek through the lyrics of complete obsession, twisting the song's original energetic dance beat into a nearly tragic dirge. Delving into gothic piano arrangements and traditional southwestern, Ennio Morricone rhythms, the song takes on a whole new gravitas, with the song's original dance energy replaced by deep, brooding sense of heartbreak and tragedy not found in the original.

(Found on the EP Fight Test)

Peace Train by Dolly Parton and Ladysmith Black Mambazo (originally by Cat Stevens)

I don't know how they do it, but everything Ladysmith Black Mambazo touches turns smooth and mellow. Heck, they even turned the alphabet into a mellifluous celebration when they appeared on Sesame Street. Granted, Peace Train has never needed any mellowing, but that doesn't diminish divine sweetness that the South African singers bring to the sound with their rich, layered harmonies. Dolly Parton, singing the lead line throughout the song and strumming along on her guitar, adds a spark of sass to the song, lending her familiar vocal twang into the mix. As the rich, serene strains of Joseph Shabalala and company entwine with the sharp, down-home folksy style that Parton brings to the song, we get a unique blend where there sum is greater than the whole of the parts, like a robust sweet and sour meal at a Chinese restaurant. The original felt pretty joyful and inspirational, but this version takes those feelings to a whole new level.

(Found on the album Treasures)

And as this latest list of familiar songs in unfamiliar guises draws to a close, be sure to check back on these older cover song lists of mine:

Close Cover Before Striking - the original
Cover Me, I'm Goin' In - part II
Quit Hogging the Covers - part III
Don't Worry, We've Got You Covered - part IV

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