Appreciation! Covers We Covet, Volume 1

The art of the cover song is a delicate subject. Many people believe it is impossible to achieve a perfect rendition of a song already recorded by another artist. Others believe that a band’s ability (and chutzpah) to play a classic song is the true test of their strength as a group.

I have a love/hate relationship with cover songs. In many cases, I believe the cover song is one of the best parts of a band’s live set (ie. The Decemberists/Death Cab for Cutie/Stars performing Fleetwood Mac’s “You Can Go Your Own Way” to close the Central Park Summerstage show in 2005). In some other cases, I find the cover song an overdone and unnecessary practice (especially if it is cliche ::cough cough Every Indie Act Covering “Womanizer”).

In order to make a cover song work, as far as I am concerned, the artist has to inject their own style into the song instead of just playing the song exactly as it originally appeared. The artist has to believe in the original as well as taking steps towards exercising some artistic license.

Here is a list of some notable cover songs (with corresponding mp3s)…

  • Matt Pond PA covering Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea” mp3

Recently I have realized that Neutral Milk Hotel’s songs are very often covered by my favorite artists. (Jesse Lacey of Brand New, for one, has been known to cover “Two Headed Boy” in his solo show set list). The song, “Aeroplane,” is one of my favorite songs off the album by the same name. This cover is a beautiful acoustic piece sort of close to the original version. From listening to so much Matt Pond PA recently, it is a fair assumption that MPPA is heavily influenced by Neutral Milk. But injecting violins into the melody, he adds a sense of softness and romanticism to the song. It is what MPPA does best.

  • Bats for Lashes covering Kings of Leon’s”Use Somebody” mp3

Recently posted on Stereogum, this cover features many of the things that I love about cover songs. First off, it is a female vocalist singing a song originally recorded (and performed) by a male-fronted band. Secondly, the tempo is slowed down slightly. Thirdly, one or more instruments are added (an organ and a tambourine). Although I don’t listen to much Bat for Lashes (and am a casual KOL fan), this cover is a great example of a cover where the song is softened up successfully.

  • Stars covering The Smiths’ “This Charming Man” mp3

What? A Smiths cover? Someone attempted to cover the Smiths! That is preposterous! No. I am just kidding (even though many think – Morrissey included – The Smiths are one of those untouchable bands). Stars fuses the melody with electronica sounds. The whispering vocals of Torqui Campbell accompanied with the ever-so-charming (haha) Amy Milan is a new spin on Morrissey’s signature style found in this song. Yes, it is possible to appropriately cover The Smiths. Stars have done it. Death Cab for Cutie too (in a version of the same song – download here).

  • Peter Gabriel and Hot Chip covering Vampire Weekend’s “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa mp3

When I originally heard that this cover existed, I thought it would be one of those cover songs that came off silly. I mean, a 59-year-old famous English musician who is name-dropped in an indie song covering said indie song as a duet with an electronica-dance-pop band? However it is one of the greatest things I’ve heard in a while. He covers the song with a bit of humor and even inserts, “But this feels so unnatural to sing your own name” at the part where one would expect to hear “But this feels so unnatural, Peter Gabriel too.”

  • She and Him covering The Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better” mp3

When a female vocalist covers a song written from the point of view of a man, it is expected that any “her” pronouns will be turned into “him.” In this case, “girl” is replaced with “guy.” This version has a country twang and slow finger-picking tone, unlike the original (which is only slightly twangy due to the harmonicas). The tone is casual yet dreamy. In addition, it is one of the few times on “Volume One” where M. Ward actually takes a verse (in this case, the chorus). There is even a bit where Zooey lets out a giggle. Too cute Zooey, too cute.

Coming soon: Top 10 Bruce Springsteen cover songs…

Rant: When Indie Goes Mainstream

When it comes to Kings of Leon, I was an early bloomer. I have been listening to and loving them since high school. I started out with Youth and Young Manhood, moved on to Aha Shake Heartbreak, and even got my hands on an advanced copy of Because of the Times (thanks, WERW). Somewhere along the way, a funny thing happened to those Tennessee raised Followill brothers (and cousin). They gained popularity and entered “the mainstream”.

They had already achieved super stardom overseas and I came to terms with that. I would hear them on the radio every now and then but the stations were obscure so I chalked it up to that. Liv Tyler said she loved them in a magazine interview. That was okay too because Liv Tyler is pretty hip, don’t you think? Because of the Times received critical acclaim (for the most part) and then Only By The Night posters began appearing on every construction site in New York City, and suddenly Kings of Leon were selling out Madison Square Garden. That was when I knew; my little indie band was no longer. They had crossed over.

From there it only got worse. The boys secured three Grammies and the celebrity namedropping began. Really, it was only a matter of time. Chelsea Handler of E’s pop-culture comedic jaunt “Chelsea Lately” mentioned that she had been “hanging out” with them. On a radio interview, Miley Cyrus took a breather from bashing Radiohead to talk about the crazy rumor she heard that Kings of Leon are preacher’s sons! Omg, no way!? I am attempting to be happy for them and embrace their more commercial tunes but it has been very trying, indeed.

This brings me to the question at hand; why do we hate it so much when our favorite bands make it big? Maybe Mrs. Eisen failed to teach me that, “sharing is caring,” in kindergarten or something. Shouldn’t I be happy that a band that I like is finally getting the recognition that they’ve worked so hard for? Along with their newfound success I gain bragging rights but I lose a little piece of my identity. When a new fan is telling me how much they love the song, “Sex on Fire,” I can casually say, “Oh, Kings of Leon? I’ve been listening to them for years.” Yet, if a person asks me what my favorite bands are and I say Kings of Leon, it no longer reflects my music preferences in an accurate light. It might lead people to believe that I like other bands like them who can sell out MSG, which is not usually true.

In moments like these, I feel the only remedy is to find new little bands to fill the void. And so, I’d like to introduce you to Cage the Elephant. Hailing from Bowling Green, Kentucky, these boys bring the rock and the southern twang. They also have a solid English fanbase and their single “Ain’t No Rest For the Wicked” reached number 32 on the UK Singles Chart, not to mention they grew up on a Christian commune. Sound familiar? The band is comprised of Matt Shultz (vocals) and his brother Brad on guitar, along with their friends Jared Champion and Danielle Tichenor. Lincoln Parish later asked to join via email and his request was granted. While their sound lacks versatility, it so catchy that it just about makes up for it. They are a little less indie and a bit more rock n’ roll than Kings of Leon but a good substitute nonetheless.