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The Art of the Cover Song

Monday, September 15, 2008 - 02:15 PM

Cover songs can be tricky – on one hand, a cover of a song you like will often simply remind you of why you liked the original in the first place, and will often suffer by comparison. (There are exceptions – I liked “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, but let’s face it, Johnny Cash came along and blew them out of the water with his stripped-down version.) On the other, a cover of a song you dislike may just be the musical equivalent of a sneer, as was apparently the case when Jay-Z lumbered through a deliberately half-assed version of “Wonderwall” by Oasis at this year’s Glastonbury Festival.

But sometimes a cover will surprise you: when the great English folk-rock guitarist Richard Thompson began performing his “1000 Years of Popular Music” shows some years back, he would begin with “Sumer Is Icumen In,” usually referred to as the oldest extant English-language song (it’s in Old English), and he would go all the way up to “Oops, I Did It Again” – the Britney Spears pop song. But Thompson played it as if it were just as fine a piece of songwriting as anything else in the set – a simple acknowledgment that it was, in fact, popular music; no snobbery or irony involved. It still strikes many listeners (including me) as a bit of a novelty, but it’s apparently sincere.

There are many examples of artists from one genre covering the songs of another: you can go back to Elvis, “covering” the Neapolitan song “O Sole Mio” and turning it into the English language hit “It’s Now Or Never.” Mid-20th century pop songs would often be made out of old classical music melodies and new lyrics. But in the rock era, this sort of thing has become quite common. Talking Heads doing Al Green, for example; and in the reverse direction, cellist Matt Haimovitz doing Led Zeppelin.

Tell us about a cross-genre cover that struck you as being unusually creative, or just plain unusual, or even unusually disastrous…

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