published Friday, July 1st, 2011

Phillips: Some songs deserve a good cover

Cover band. Those two words are often enough, on their own, to cause a music snob to turn up his nose and rush off to type scathing entries in a (probably unread) music blog.

To those people, I heartily advise a voluntary 15-minute timeout to chill out.

While I don’t have as much creative respect for covers as I do for original material, there are times when a cover song can give you a fresh perspective or even — gasp — improve on the original.

For whatever reason, my ears have been perking up to interesting covers lately. Some I’ve heard have turned the original song on its head. Some stuck to the framework of the original but are just better performed. Others are so popular I long confused them for the original until research taught me otherwise.

For all these reasons, here are a few of my favorite covers (in no particular order).

n Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s cover of “(Somewhere) Over the Rainbow” — Written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, this song is most often associated with Judy Garland’s performance in “The Wizard of Oz.” Kamakawiwo’ole’s crooning over simple ukulele accompaniment captures a soulful longing that helped redefine it for me.

Alanis Morissette’s cover of “My Humps” — Personally, I can’t stand the original version of this incredibly degrading song by The Black Eyed Peas. Clearly, neither could Morissette, as demonstrated by her parody, which is performed as a slow ballad accompanied by exaggerated dancing in mockery of Fergie. Morissette is so amused with herself she barely makes it to the end before bursting out laughing. I didn’t make it that long.

Dwight Yoakam’s cover of “Train in Vain” — The Clash’s “Train in Vain” caps off “London Calling” with poppy hooks that keep me coming back. Yoakam’s version features banjos, accordions and some of the twangiest vocals I’ve ever heard. It’s enough of a system shock to cause an aural double take.

Scissor Sisters’ cover of “Comfortably Numb” — The most-famous song off Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” a neurotic rock opera about abandonment, the original version is trippy and atmospheric. Scissor Sisters add an incredibly danceable, up-tempo beat and cut almost two minutes off the original 6:21 run time. A more stark contrast to the original is hard to imagine.

Metallica’s cover of “Whiskey in the Jar” — In this traditional Irish song at least a couple hundred years old, lead singer James Hetfield’s growl slots in nearly perfectly on Metallica’s driving cover off the band’s 1998 album “Garage Inc.” For many Americans, this is probably the definitive edition.

My list of great or interesting covers could go on, including Nickel Creek’s cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” Goldfinger’s skater punk version of Nena’s “99 Red Balloons” and almost anything by Pomplamoose. All are well-deserving of your attention.

So the next time you hear something is a cover of “Song X,” give it the benefit of the doubt. While you’re at it, do us all a favor and give your blog a rest, too.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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