The Music Meme: Day 24

Day 24: A cover song

"Within You Without You" by Patti Smith

Another huge, huge, category here, with candidates for inclusion that number in the hundreds. Cover songs are a fascinating topic on their own, and you could easily do this entire meme for a month without using any song that was NOT a cover song. Still, the most common criterion that people want to discuss when cover songs are mentioned is the supposedly unusual case of a cover that is better than the original. The fact of the matter is that many, many songs can be done better by someone who was not the original singer, particular in cases where a gifted songwriter is somewhat less gifted as a performer. This is not to say the original performer is no good, however; a prime example of this is Bob Dylan, who is actually a pretty damned good performer, but that fact is obscured by his incandescence as a writer. It is thus not shocking to find a Dylan cover that's better than the original--in fact, I can think of at least two artists whose versions of "All Along the Watchtower" are superior to Bob's: Jimi Hendrix and the Dave Matthews Band. And XTC's reimagined version is a legitimate candidate for a third slot.

I don't demand that a cover be better than the original, but I do want the cover to offer me something that the original does not, which is one reason why I have to admit disappointment in Under the Covers, the multi-album series of classic songs redone by Matthew Sweet and Susannah Hoffs. Sweet and Hoffs have fantastic taste in songs, you must understand--they get off on the same power pop that I do, and their sincere love for every tune they do just oozes out of the speakers. The problem is, that same affection drives them to lovingly duplicate what the original performers did, which means that we're not really getting anything from the new versions that we didn't already get from the originals. I mean, this version of the Stone Poneys' "Different Drum" is terrific, but it's nearly a note-for-note recreation of Linda Ronstadt & Co.'s version. Why shouldn't we just listen to Linda's?

So for me to really take note of a cover and say, "THAT was something new!" requires a performer who can not merely find the good stuff in the original, but also deliver some NEW good stuff. And when the original good stuff is really, really good, that's a challenge. But Patti Smith is up for a challenge, dammit, and for her covers album, Twelve, she faced unafraid the kind of challenge that many performers avoid: taking on a classic Beatles tune. Her treatment of George Harrison's "Within You Without You" eschews the Indian instrumentation of the Sgt. Pepper track, and it takes a somewhat more straightforward approach to the song's 6/8 rhythm as well, but those alterations actually serve to separate the cover from the original in a helpful way, giving Smith's voice room to claim the lyrics as her own. It's an outstanding piece of work, and on an album full of fantastic cover songs (Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise," Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?") I think this one is arguably the triumph. The Quiet Beatle would be proud.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on August 30, 2017 9:16 PM.

The Music Meme: Day 23(ish?) was the previous entry in this blog.

The Music Meme: Day 25 is the next entry in this blog.

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