I was reminded of the potential of covers recently when I started using a song that I thought was written by singer/songwriter Lucy Kaplansky called “More Than This.” She does it in a simple but gorgeous finger style that is more challenging than it appears to be on first listen. I gave it to a student recently and she said, that’s a cover of a Brian Ferry/Roxy Music techno-rock song from the early 1990s. Well, this was news to me! I never cared much for that genre when it was popular, which is probably why it didn’t ring my musical bell. But sure enough, she sent me a link to the original video on YouTube and there it was. While the video is easy to watch (you’ll know what I mean if you look it up (!!) ) I found myself turning down the sound after about 30 seconds. Lucy’s version is far better in my opinion, at least from a musical point of view. The lyrics are equally important. My opinion of 1990s techno remains unchanged.
You can never really tell how covers will strike you both in the short and long term. Take Dylan’s recent forays into the music of Frank Sinatra. Now, I don’t think I’m alone when I say that this at first glance seems to be the most incongruous of musical combinations, especially judging by the reported quality or lack of in Dylan’s live performances in the last few years. But amazingly – it works. Dylan has made a career of breaking convention in all sorts of ways and what he has done is gotten to the core of those great jazz standards with sparse arrangements, superb production and total insight into the meaning of the lyrics. Although no would ever accuse Bob of having the vocal chops of perhaps the greatest pop singer of all time, he does a fantastic job of understanding that it was also phrasing that made Frank so great. Dylan imparts a sense of hard gained knowledge, experience, resignation and redemption to the lyrics with his singing. Give the new recordings a listen and check your expectations at the door. If you do that you are in for treat.
Sometimes it’s hard to pick a favorite version of a song. Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” is equally moving both by herself and the classic version by Crosby, Stills and Nash. They are entirely different from a musical perspective but both effect the listener deeply. The Beatles doing “Twist and Shout” is just as vital as Chuck Berry’s original. And getting back to Mr. Dylan, is “Blowin’ in the Wind” any less important or legitimate by Peter, Paul and Mary than the original by Dylan himself?
From the perspective of the guitarist or band trying to break into the local music scene, covers are vital. I’ve known a few musicians over the years who are steadfastly committed to playing only original music and while I admire their lofty goals – which are at least partly based in some notoriety for their music even if they don’t like to admit it – the fact is, those people put their music in front of an audience a lot less than those doing covers.
So how does a local performer handle the question of covers? Some try their best to replicate a cover as perfectly as possible. That’s fine and it can be quite gratifying on a personal level but the other side of that coin is that a player may be setting him or herself up for a fall. The closer one gets to the original, the more one will be compared to the original. Even small mistakes can be glaring. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want that kind of pressure!
Some players (not many, thankfully) will try to hide behind their musical deficiencies by saying something along the lines of: Well, that’s the way I like to play it! That’s MY version!
Is that being interpretive, or just lazy?
What’s that old saying – “You can fool some of the people some of the time….”
So, my considered opinion is that it is best to work out an arrangement of a song that includes all the required elements but then and only then, make it your own. Things like dynamics that may be different than the original (such as Lucy Kaplansky’s version of “More Than This”) or fooling with verse and chorus repeats, such as was done by the late great Eva Cassidy with her many covers.
Doing covers is fun and challenging, for sure. Make a song your own and don’t sweat it too much if you can’t sing like Frank Sinatra!
Peace & good music,