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imitation is the laziest form of flattery
just like before, it's yesterday once more
by russ carr (@DocOrlando70)
4.21.04
music

So I get in my car to head back to the office after running errands. Social Code is doing a cover of Icicle Works' "A Whisper To A Scream." It's gawdawful, as Social Code is something of an industrial band, and they're taking the song's title to heart, with some guy screaming every time they reach that particular word in the chorus.

Shrugging it off, I trudge up the stairs to my desk, where the Internet radio station I usually listen to is streaming a cover of "Never Say Never" by Romeo Void. It, too, is gawdawful. I click to the station's playlist to see who's covering it -- it's Queens of the Stone Age, and it's on the soundtrack to "The Punisher," which means it's going to hit heavy rotation any day now.

Two cover songs -- Eighties-era songs! -- in five minutes? That's a little superfreaky. The fact that I heard 'em both on non-commercial radio stations makes me squirm a little more; this recent cover song resurgence is spreading, and I can't seem to avoid it.

Not that cover songs are anything new. In fact, the concept is fairly archaic; when symphonies play, 99 percent of the time they're playing some long-dead guy's "song." You'll never hear K-Tel pushing a classical music collection of "All the original hits by the original artists!"

There's a local "cocktail music" station that's only slightly better. That narrow band of Rat Pack jazz embraces only so many songs, which are recorded and re-recorded by subsequent generations. Ain't misbehavin'...or innovatin', either.

So considering the exceedingly vast catalog of pop/rock music that's out there, the number of cover tunes which have gotten airplay over the past decades is miniscule compared to that of classical or jazz music. But as anyone stuck listening to radio knows, what's available to be played and what gets played are two different things.

And so we get Jessica Simpson singing Berlin's "Take My Breath Away." We get Sheryl Crow singing Cat Stevens' "The First Cut Is The Deepest" (which was more famously covered by Rod Stewart). We get Elwood covering Gordon Lightfoot's "Sundown."

Sweet James Brown, people -- it's bad enough that you can't write a song to save your life, but could you at least cover a song that doesn't already suck?!

Annie Lennox covering "Take Me to the River"? Sucks. No Doubt covering "It's My Life"? Sucks. Counting Crows' cover of "Big Yellow Taxi"? Sucks. And blows. They can't sing their own stuff well, why do they think they can sing someone else's stuff any better?

I lay the blame on the black t-shirted shoulders of Simon Cowell.

Cowell's weekly karaoke kompetition -- you know it as "American Idol" -- has legitimized the really bad cover song. Never mind the winners; it's not about them, anyway. It's about William Hung mangling "She Bangs." It's about Camile Velasco butchering "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." It's about the minute or two that hundreds of really piss-poor singers have gotten to take someone else's song (maybe a good song, maybe not) and butcher it, to the delight of audiences all over the country.

Why else, weeks after the fact, would we still be seeing ad banners promoting Hung's debut album, which premiered at #34 on the Billboard album chart? Because America has come to embrace its hideous cover-singing sensations.

But while Billy Hung is unlikely to see actual airplay outside of those wacky morning drive-time shows, there are plenty of mainstream offenders who have hoisted excruciatingly bad covers on us more than once. The aforementioned Sheryl Crow released an appalling version of Guns 'n' Roses "Sweet Child of Mine," for instance. Now I'm not even a G'n'R fan (although I think their cover of "Live and Let Die" just smokes the too-fluffy original by Wings) but Axl owns "Sweet Child." Crow sounds like a Bootheel trailer park bride in cutoffs and a tubetop who got shoved up on stage after six Jack 'n' Cokes and a pack of Virginia Slims. In other words, a G'n'R groupie.

Then there's Limp Bizkit. First they covered George Michael's "Faith," with much howling and screaming. I don't get that. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong had skat. Bobby McFerrin had a whole orchestra of sound effects in his mouth. Even Journey had "na na n'na na." Little vocal sounds to fill a bridge when there were no lyrics. Fred Durst just...screams. "'Cuz I gotta have FAIIIITHURHGHFBHHKLARRRFGGHH!" How romantic!

Now Fred and the boys have turned their penchant for bugge...covering songs to The Who, releasing their own version of "Behind Blue Eyes." It's remarkably straightforward until the up-tempo part of the song, where Pete Townshend pleads "When my fist clenches, crack it open/Before I use it and lose my cool..." That bit has been replaced with a Speak 'n' Spell chanting "Discover L-I-M-P. Say it."

"Limp." That's apt. Also "dickless no-talent freaks." Still, I'm sure there are thousands of people at Limp Bizkit concerts, many of whom look like Sheryl Crow, who hear this new take on a classic song and believe it to be exceedingly meaningful and maybe cry a little as they pack their meth pipes.

Now I'm not down on all covers. Like I said, the "Live and Let Die" cover is better than the original. Siouxsie and the Banshees' take on "Dear Prudence" sounds far more lush and surreal than The Beatles' version. Joss Stone's cover of The White Stripes' "Fell in Love with a [Boy]" is amazing. The Lemonheads' version of "Mrs. Robinson." The Foo Fighters' cover of "Darling Nikki." The Gourds' unforgettable cover of "Gin and Juice."

Up and coming bands need to do covers to build up the crowd's interest, and that's cool. At some point, though, it's time to take away the safety net. Fall back on someone else's stuff too often, and the novelty's gone. And nothing shows a lack of originality or talent quite so clearly as warbling through your take on a classic. Get out there and play your own songs. Ditch the covers.

Hey, it worked for The Beatles.


ABOUT RUSS CARR

If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.

more about russ carr

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COMMENTS

tracey kelley
4.21.04 @ 12:34a

Awwwwww, a cute Little Russ pic! Awwwwwww!

The best cover I've heard in the past year? Our own Jeff Miller's version of "One Thing"

Why? Because he took what was an original song in itself, and bumped it three levels higher than what it was. He did not imitate.

And that's the purpose of covering a good song. Retain individual artistry while building off a solid foundation.

And I still think we should promote the living shit out of it.

As much as I can take or leave No Doubt, I think their cover of "It's My Life" is fantastic, mainly because Tony Kanal took it from being a synth/pop whiny ditty and made it an anthem of sorts.

The more I listened to Foo's "Darling Nikki", the less impressed I was, as much as I love the Foo's. On the other hand, their version of "Baker Street" was amazing.

Same with Norah Jones covering Hank William's "Cold Cold Heart." The blending of country and jazz was easy because the roots were the same, but she added a nuance that few others could have done.

People cover songs for a variety of reasons. Joss Stone was supposed to have released an album of all new material, but the record company had her "play around" with a few other tunes, and pushed a covers album as her debut. Which in turn means they will wear her thin, and that's unfortunate. Record execs do this often, especially with new artists, because they feel the original song has a built-in audience and that will help garner attention. But it dampens the spirit of the original work.

The Beatles weren't immune to covers. They redid Meredith Willson's "Til There Was You" from The Music Man.

Sheryl Crow and Jessica Simpson need to just Go. Away.

dan gonzalez
4.21.04 @ 12:55a

I always liked the Soul Asylum cover of "To Sir, With Love." Another one was Firehose's cover of Superchunk's "Slack Motherfucker."

Weird ones, but cool. It seems like talented people can cover anything they like, but maybe low-talents can't pull it off as easily.

matt morin
4.21.04 @ 2:07a

I'm with Tracey on the No Doubt cover. I kinda like it.

And Joss Stone covering the White Stripes? I'm sorry, you should never cover a band that was formed in the last few years.

lisa r
4.21.04 @ 7:09a

Tracey, original arrangements are great if the person doing the singing can actually sing. Then there are cases like Mariah Carey's cover of Def Leppard's "Miss You in a Heartbeat". All that screeching and caterwauling....ewwwwwwwwwwww.

Russ, I've always wondered about the collective mentality of an all-male group that would have "limp" in their band name. I figure Fred Durst sounds that bad in an effort to try to prove his masculinity.

mike julianelle
4.21.04 @ 12:06p

I HATE that Lemonheads cover. Not as much as I hate Bizkit's BBE cover, though.

I also like the No Doubt cover quite a bit. Stone's cover is alright as a showcase for her voice, otherwise it kinda sucks.

Best cover ever? "All Along the Watchtower" by Jimi. Typically, it's exceedingly difficult to give a cover props over the original, largely since the cover-band didn't write it. But some are quite good. Like Fiona Apple's cover of The Beatles' "Across the Universe" - that's fantastic.

tracey kelley
4.21.04 @ 12:27p

There's a jazz duo called Tuck and Patti who redid Hendrick's "Little Wing/Castles In the Sand" and it's phenomenal.

Lisa, Mariah redid "Bringing On the Heartbreak." M* brought home a copy for me, and I said, "What WERE you thinking?"

The funny thing is, as a populace, we're much more proprietory over pop/rock covers than we are standards. When Harry Connick Jr. or Diana Kraul whip out some Ellington or Armstrong, we don't really give it a second thought. Standards are almost "expected" to be covered by a new generation.

You know the covers I really hate? "Rat Pack jazz" (great term, Russ!) instrumental versions of pop songs. Sorry - I don't need to hear Kenny G redoing Train, thank you very much.

matt morin
4.21.04 @ 12:38p

A great cover? "Killing me softly" by Lauren Hill.

russ carr
4.21.04 @ 12:43p

Mike, I once burned a CD for a buddy of mine, with nothing but choice -- and mostly rare -- Beatles covers on it. I included Fiona Apple's version of "Across the Universe," and "Lovely Rita" by Mass. locals The Nields. Good stuff.

tracey kelley
4.21.04 @ 3:49p

On my way home today I heard a live cover of "In Your Eyes", but I couldn't tell who was doing it. Didn't sound too bad.

Then, you have hack Uncle Kracker redoing "Drift Away", a song that never needed to be done to begin with.

matt morin
4.21.04 @ 4:39p

Damien Rice should cover "In Your Eyes."

dan gonzalez
4.21.04 @ 6:11p

The Sundays cover of Wild Horses was good too, but then again Harriet Wheeler could sing anything and I'd lay down at her feet like a mesmerized dog.

craige moore
4.21.04 @ 7:03p

I beg to differ. Only Shirley Bassey can sing "Killing Me Softly." But I guess any song with a dance beat added these days is considered "good."

lisa r
4.21.04 @ 7:46p

Thanks, Tracey. See, it was so bad I couldn't even remember which one she butchered! Someone sent it to me by email, I listened, cringed, and deleted it posthaste.

tracey kelley
5.23.04 @ 11:41p

I thought Roberta Flack wrote/did "Killing Me Softly?"

So M* wanted a disc "Before You Were Punk", featuring some of the newish Punk-Lite bands covering 80s tunes.

Great stuff - no kidding - included Blink 182 redoing "Dancing With Myself", Unwritten Law redoing "Goody Two Shoes", No Use for a Name redoing "Turning Japanese" and Bracket redoing "867-5309".



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