What We Talk About When We Talk About Covers (by Raymond Carver)

Hip Hop, Indie Folk, Jazz, Pop, R&B, Rock & Roll
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Last week, Ron Weasley Ed Sheeran delivered an impromptu cover of “CoCo” by O.T. Genasis on BBC Radio 1Xtra. I watched the video and immediately sent it to my editor, Yunus Church. Here was our conversation:

Neal: I think I need to write about how awful this is. God. Gosh. Darn. Fuck. This is really bad.

Yunus: No way did this happen. I refuse to listen or even acknowledge it. This didn’t happen. (Editor’s note: Still haven’t listened to it, still won’t. Can’t risk the possibility of Sheeran’s voice intruding my turn up whilst bangin’ the original)

I want to talk about how awful this is, not because I hate Ed Sheeran but because I love covers. I really, really love them. I’m fascinated by why artists decide to cover certain songs by other artists. Are they paying homage to someone who has influenced their work? Do they have a new, interesting take on the song? Are they too lazy to write and need to add one more track to an album? Because of these curiosities, I will listen to almost any cover of any song.

But acoustic covers of hip-hop songs are problematic. There’s an entire conversation to be had about cultural appropriation, about how the only way to make songs like “CoCo” more accessible is to have a young white guy play them on the guitar. It’s a little unnerving to hear these kinds of covers because they place the singer so far outside the scope of the original work. It always comes off as slightly patronizing, as if the cover is revealing some kind of hidden substance that wasn’t there to begin with. Oftentimes the results, as is the case with Sheeran’s cover, are purely comedic, and there’s an arrogance in showing how ridiculous some hip-hop songs are when driven from their context. It’s a flippant type of white privilege. This doesn’t work when hip-hop artists cover pop songs. You would never hear O.T. Genasis cover Ed Sheeran. If you did, it probably wouldn’t sound funny.

Sheeran’s cover doesn’t sound funny either, only terrible. “CoCo” isn’t good to begin with (“Water whip, like I’m Nemo.” Excuse me?) but Sheeran doesn’t offer a compelling stylistic alternative. The cognitive dissonance of playing a song about cooking crack-cocaine as if it were merely a low-key Jack Johnson b-side is staggering in its absurdity. Sheeran has written about addiction before in his hit single “The A Team” so perhaps this particular song resonates with him. That’s the best excuse I can come up with for why this had to happen.

I don’t ever want to talk about this cover again, but I do want to talk about other ones. Specifically, what makes a good cover. In my mind there are three key distinctions:

1). The cover is an homage to the original in some way, shape or form, whether vocally or melodically, but usually not both. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery but you can’t just make a carbon copy of someone else’s work.

2). The cover is a complete and total reworking of the original, unique and even a bit audacious in its execution. However, it must make sense in context. Sorry, Obadiah Parker but “Hey Ya” is a happy song. It’s a feel good song. It makes you want to dance. You shouldn’t be sad while you’re shaking it like a polaroid picture. That doesn’t make any fucking sense.

3). The cover falls somewhere in between 1 or 2.

In that spirit, here are a few of my many favorite covers, ranked in no particular order. Please share yours in the comments!


Isaac Hayes, “Walk On By”

My mother worships Dionne Warwick and I grew up listening to her early recordings, many of them written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Warwick, as Jean Monteaux once wrote, normally sings with “not a voice so much as an organ.” On “Walk on By,” however, she croons softly, allowing Bacharach’s shifting orchestration to take over. A brass section morphs into violins as backup singers punctuate Warwick with authority.

Hayes covered this song at the end of the turbulent 60’s and turned it into a 12-minute funk epic, complete with a roaring guitar and violent string introduction that finally gives way to Hayes’ smooth, haunting vocals. The vamp eventually speeds up so electrically, repeating and repeating itself with remarkable intensity that by the time it burns out abruptly and ends with a sad, simple drum solo, you’re still catching your breath. No one has ever turned Bacharach upside down quite like this.


Ingrid Michaelson, “Nightswimming”

“Nightswimming” is one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands so I hold any renditions of it to a high standard (talking to you, Dashboard Confessional). It’s hard not to be impressed by Michelson here, as she uses a looper pedal to match her dynamic riffing. She pays reverence to the circularity of Michael Mills’ memorable piano motif while making the song indelibly her own.


Rufus Wainwright, “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”

Wainwright is best known for his cover of another Leonard Cohen classic, but this one is just as moving. The orchestra swells climactically at the end of the second verse and recedes gently under the power of Wainwright’s voice.  This video is his performance of “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” in the underrated concert documentary Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, but I prefer the album version; the strings don’t overpower him as much. I typically have little patience for those who can’t separate Cohen’s poetic genius from the sultry depths of his vocal range, but Wainwright, one of the most gifted singers of his generation, makes this song feel profoundly urgent. Cohen’s version is direct in its simplicity, as if it were no more than a formal statement. Wainwright turns it into a confessional.


Cat Power, “Sea of Love”

In his excellent book Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, critic Daniel Durchholz writes that Tom Waits has a voice that sounds like it was “soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” I always think of this quote when listening to Waits, and when you hear his gruff and demanding rendition of Phil Phillips’ doo-wop single “Sea of Love,” you know what Durchholz means. My preferred cover of this song, however, comes from the Atlanta born Cat Power, the vocal antithesis of Waits. Her version, famously used in the movie Juno, is melodically faithful to Phillips but stripped down to only a ukulele. This simplicity brings out the beauty of Power’s textured isolation. It turns the song from a cute Hallmark card into a melancholy plea for closeness. If you like this, check out the rest of the aptly titled The Covers Record, where Power pays strange and powerful homage to everyone from Johnny Mathis to The Rolling Stones.


John Legend, “Dancing In The Dark”

This one goes in the Cover Hall of Fame. My favorite version of it comes from Legend’s appearance in 2012 on Jimmy Fallon’s late night show. With some help from the Roots, Legend keeps the loose spirit of the original but with a strutting jazz arrangement that is more timeless. Other renditions, like the one above, feature a solo Legend confidently gliding along the ivory keys. Regardless of how he does it, Legend crafts this song into a more psychological exploration of longing.

I’ve always loved the lyrics to “Dancing In The Dark,” but Springsteen seems to fight against them, covering up the pain with dated, distracting synthesizers. Legend embraces it and allows the melody, and his soulful vocals, to convey a sense of hope amidst despair. He’s soft and sure, and understands that most men lead lives of quiet desperation.

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