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under the covers

ah, the shark infested waters of the cover song. once you've introduced a human being to an instrument of sound, you've activated a timer that leads inevitably towards making their own version of someone else's material. i'm not talking about the first attempts at playing, where you learn an instrument by repeating what's already been written. i'm talking about an artist who is comfortable enough in their own sound, and who wants to interpret a classic or hidden gem. and sooner or later, every artist does this. every one of them. the exceptions are a lie.

the sharks i referenced above are people like you and me: listeners who stand ready to disembowel an artist for disrespecting a classic or reducing their own music to a lame joke. doing a cover version automatically gives the listener a dual measuring stick, whereby they evaluate what they're hearing on its own merits and as a comparison to the original. [that assumes that they even know the original, which i realise isn't always the case.]

nevertheless, it's undeniably exciting when we hear an artist we love give us a new perspective on an old track. and so i've put together a wee playlist of just a few of my favourites.



playlist 
devo :: satisfaction [rolling stones]
hausfrau :: dancehall days [wang chung]
absolute body control :: baby's on fire [brian eno]
einstürzende neubauten :: morning dew [lee hazelwood]
coil :: who by fire [leonard cohen]
shockheaded peters :: blue rosebuds [the residents]
nick cave and the bad seeds :: all tomorrow's parties [the velvet underground]
blok 57 :: warm leatherette [the normal]
the residents :: satisfaction [rolling stones]

the selection is bookended by two versions of the rolling stones' "satisfaction". the stones are a great band to cover because they have a lot of tracks that are very well known and a lot that have been lost in the sheer mass of their history. their songs are never complex, even when they have something like a choir grafted onto them à la "you can't always get what you want". that leaves a lot of room for a band to add their own special elements, without just throwing out the blueprint. [nineties era techno producers had a habit of "remixing" tracks into something that sounded exactly like everything else the producer did. how insulting.]

it's simplicity that allows the stones' classic to be reconstructed as an uptight musical product for the coke-fueled dawn of the reagan years by devo, and as a creepy torch song of the hippie-era's post-acid crash by the residents.

both of these covers hit all the high notes for me: they're far different from the original, and yet the original is very much present. the smart-alecky jagger persona is peeled away to reveal either a dehumanised "worker bot" or an insatiable monster. "satisfaction" slots neatly into both a devo album and a residents album, but you don't need to see the track title itself to know what it is.

we should all be able to agree that the coldwave revival sound has passed its best before date, however, one of the intriguing things that has come out of the interest in the corners of early eighties electro-pop is that you occasionally get a take on a track from the era through the lens of hindsight. wang chung are a band best known for party/ club music from a time when clubs and drugs and partying were a pretty big deal. their music graces the soundtrack of william friedkin's vice crime opus to live and die in l.a., which is about as good a summation of the eighties as you can get. [most people would say scarface, but i've never been a fan.] however, no one is going to be including wang chung in a list of greatest artists of all time.

so a cover of their breakout hit [in the u.s.] "dancehall days" could just be a gag: "remember those guys with the funny name?" instead, hausfrau [glaswegian claudia nova] gives the club favourite a plaintive treatment, stripping the syncopation and synthetic brass away and making the listener painfully aware of the song's false promise of fun. ms. nova's emotionless vocals are a discomforting mirror of a decade marked by shallowness and materialism.

but covers don't have to be about meaning. sometimes they can just be about an artist feeling a sense of kinship with an earlier artist. a number of years ago, i was lucky enough to see dirk ivens appear on subsequent nights at montreal's kinetik festival [r.i.p.]. seeing one performance would have been a thrill, but the magic of the two shows was that i got to see two of ivens' onstage personae. the first was the smooth, cool, dinner-jacket-and-sunglasses-wearing frontman of absolute body control, while the second was as the lone wolf of dive, wired tighter than the machines on the stage, the antithesis of projected image. and for each of those characters, he has a perfect cover song.

absolute body control's cover of brian eno's "baby's on fire" is a perfect match on a number of levels: ivens' blasé delivery of unsettling lyrics is spot on. if anything, the detachment between 'prettiness' and catchiness of the music is even greater when robert fripp's scene-stealing guitar solo is removed. it's a perfect vehicle for a character who looks like he could take anything perfectly in stride.

on the flipside, there is his cover [as blok 57 with guy van mieghem] of "warm leatherette" is the anthem of the man i saw at the second night's performance. it is as relaxed and cool as an industrial press, and does actually sound like one. "warm leatherette" is the industrial scene's louie louie. i could have done a playlist of other people's versions of that track that's longer than what we have here. but this one will always be a favourite, because, as huge and threatening and brutal as it sounds, its minimalism and repetition are at the heart of the ballard-inspired original.

you might have noticed above that the residents feature both as coverer and coveree on this playlist. i loved the shockheaded peters track for several years without knowing it was a residents cover. [ironically, i found out when i heard another band cover the same song and saw the writing credits.] the energy of "blue rosebuds" in its original and reinterpreted forms could hardly be more different: there's a creepy fairytale-like quality to the original that raises your hackles in the same way that walking home on a dark forest path might do. the cover version all rage and anguish laid bare, the eerie caesura transformed into a contemptuous dismissal. most remarkably, this is done without changing a single note of the original. one is instantly recognisable as the other, but it leaves you wondering what the hell happened.

and in the spirit of "what the hell", i've included neubauten's cover of "morning dew". this wasn't post-ende neu einstürzende neubauten, either. this wasn't from the period where they embraced the fact that they were free to ply their art with real instruments. this track appears on five on the open-ended richter scale. still, i find the cover gives a glimpse of what was to come and what lurked beneath the band's metal-plated surface. deep down, blixa bargeld was just a misunderstood artsy guy who liked listening to lee hazelwood albums.

rounding out the list is nick cave, who is perhaps the king of cover songs, and coil. i picked cave's version of "all tomorrow's parties", which is taken from an album of nothing but cover songs, because it's lesser known [as well as being a longtime favourite of mine]. i also like the fact that this song is strong enough to withstand being "nick caved". the man is such an iconic character that he can just ride roughshod over other people's material. the bones of the original are clearly visible through the luminous skin of the cover, and at the same time, it sounds like the song was written by and for nick cave.

the obvious choice of coil song for this list would be their cover of "tainted love" [which became the biggest stateside hit for soft cell, but was originally recorded by gloria jones]. the cover and video truly brings a new perspective, emerging as it did in the midst of the eighties aids crisis. however, i've always been partial to their version of "who by fire". leonard cohen is a tricky artist, in that his musical versions of his own material tend to be less striking than those done by others. case in point, coil don't significantly alter the melody of the song or replace cohen's flat baritone with something more pleasing to the ear. but they do capture the sense of kafkaesque escalation that is missing from the original. you can feel the pressure mounting with each new question, without ever being able to fully comprehend enough to answer.

i stopped putting together this list solely because i knew if i didn't, i'd be going at it for a month. i'm a little [a lot] annoyed that i didn't get a better spread in terms of time, but this is but a stirring of the surface. consider this another in a series of mixtapes i'm sending to you through the internet ether. 

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