May 02, 2019

When Cover Songs Try Too Hard

Last night I found myself following a pointer gleaned from over at J's place into the darker recesses of Yootoob.  I came hunting for the promise of a good cover song, made likely by the musician being Jonathan Coulton... y'know, the guy who wrote Portal's theme song?  So into this den of iniquity I went, and I found an entire album, entitled Some Guys, of cover songs of '70s hits and ballads.  I began listening... and I found myself confused.

That's not a cover song!  Oh, it is of course... that's Coulton singing instead of Gerry Rafferty... but there's practically no difference between the two.  Is that a cover, or is it a tribute, or just a knockoff?  The entire album is like this, nigh-on note perfect copies of 40-year-old songs.  And I have to ask: why bother?  Don't get me wrong, it's a tour-de-force by Coulton.  The performances are excellent, and if you didn't know better you'd swear you were listening to the originals.
And that's the problem, isn't it?  If I wanted to listen to the original song, I'd just listen to the original, not Jonathan Coulton pretending to be Gerry Rafferty, no matter how good at it he is.

I'm long of the belief that a good cover song must have a healthy dollop of the covering band's flavor on top of the original.  The best example of this that I can come up with off the top of my head is the song "Got The Time".
Classic song by Joe Jackson in his "angry young man" phase, somewhere after punk but before new wave kicked in.  He's long been my favorite musician, and this is easily one of my favorite of his tracks.  Until I heard a cover of it.  
By heavy metal band Anthrax.
Now it's still one of my favorite Joe Jackson songs, I just prefer this version.  It's still the same song, just performed in Anthrax's inimitable style.  It's no slavish copy, it's just a brilliant repurposing.

THAT's what I think a cover song should be like.  Don't copy: adapt.

Posted by: Wonderduck at 05:20 PM | Comments (11) | Add Comment
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1 It's a strange line. If an act tries to copy a song, and fails, but doesn't suck *too* bad, then it's a cover song. If it's an EXACT copy, it's a concept. Possibly a tribute, in the right circumstances.

But also, if an act copies another act but using an intentional gimmick, that's ALSO a tribute. If the act changes the songs *too* much, or focuses on their gimmick more than the music, then they're a parody act.

Posted by: Ben at May 02, 2019 10:33 PM (4TRZx)

2 Yeah, I found most of the album to be a little too on-the-nose, and wish he'd shone a bit of Coulton snark on the painfully earnest lyrics. Everybody's Talkin is the worst, IMHO, because he carefully imitates the annoying woh-woh sound that I'd successfully suppressed all memory of. New Kid In Town works best for me, because he makes it his own just a little.


Posted by: J Greely at May 03, 2019 02:10 AM (ZlYZd)

3 Coulton just does not seem to grok what a cover is for. His project is more like using Photoshop to reproduce famous photographs. It's a marvelous accomplishment while also being unnecessary and not terribly enjoyable.
I'd not heard that Anthrax rendition of "Got The Time" before. Nice!

Posted by: GreyDuck at May 03, 2019 07:31 AM (rKFiU)

4 Disturbed exemplified how it's done with the Sound of Silence.  This metal cover of Toto's Africa is also an amazing example.  This guitar only cover of Purple Rain by John Petrucci has also featured on my playlist for some time.  All of those are recognizably the original song, but also touched by the cover artist's style.
The first version of Little Wing I ever heard was by Sting.  I didn't even know at the time that is was a cover of a Hendrix song, and it took me a while to wrap my head around the original.

Posted by: David at May 04, 2019 06:25 PM (JMkaQ)

5 Depeche Mode covered "Route 66." It is a good cover, but it also cracked me up the first time I heard it, last month. I could almost fete what the music video must have looked like.

Posted by: Suburbanbanshee at May 05, 2019 10:55 PM (sF8WE)

6 Tell, not fete. Argh, predictive spelling must go!
I was wrong about the music video, though. I was sure there would be a red sportscar, whereas it turned out to be all about motorcycles.

Posted by: Suburbanbanshee at May 05, 2019 11:02 PM (sF8WE)

7 As featured in Earth Girls Are Easy!


Posted by: J Greely at May 06, 2019 02:54 PM (ZlYZd)

8 Along the lines of making a cover, but making it your own, I just ran across this:

Posted by: Mauser at May 10, 2019 05:45 AM (Ix1l6)

9 Y'know, I never liked that song... I've always found Stevie Nicks to be creepy as hell, and Fleetwood Mac has always seemed to be overrated (note: does not include The Chain... or at least part of it.).
But I like this version.  Good catch, Mauser.

Posted by: Wonderduck at May 10, 2019 03:59 PM (EXhwA)

10 Bite your tongue. Well, a little bit, anyway. Agree on Fleetwood Mac being overrated, but Stevie Nicks is a persona that overshadowed a lot of good songs. Pretty sure she was intentionally creepy.

Posted by: Ben at May 10, 2019 04:16 PM (osxtX)

11 It came up in a FB thread, and I immediately thought of this post. One of the more music theory inclined participants noticed a very different chord progression that was more complex than the original. Totally flew over my head.

Posted by: Mauser at May 10, 2019 06:35 PM (Ix1l6)

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