I love cover versions. There, I’ve said it.
I’m fond of original compositions, of course- I add many, many, many to my collection each year. But were I to define the one niche, the one specialty of my collection, the one thing that turns a "I don’t need it" album into a "I’ve got to buy this NOW" album- it was have to be the cover version.
So what’s the big deal? Why do I crave to hear someone else do a song rather than the songwriter? Well, it’s not that really, or I’d be a huge fan of folks like Linda Ronstadt, Celine Dion, etc., who rarely write their own material and who I find artistically lacking on many levels.
I think it comes down to the thought of taking something existing, something familiar, and recreating it in a new context. Popular music rarely brings anything truly original to the table- it’s mostly a recreation, a reformatting of existing styles and forms into a combination that is (hopefully) somehow unique than those created before it. The cover version is the most basic version of this- taking an existing song and somehow making it your own.
I am now going to attempt to categorize the types of cover versions I’ve encountered. Many covers will fall into more than one of these categories. Let me know if I’m missing any.
The Tribute- This is the most obvious type of cover, and in my opinion, often the least successful. Artists like to tip their caps to their influences, which is fine, but often they forget to bring anything new to the song. Why record a song if your version is very close to one already out there? If I want to hear a Beatles song, with two guitars, bass, drums, male vocals and the same tempo as the original, well, I should just put on a Beatles record, right? The tribute covers also fail when the choice is obvious. A 2 guitar, bass and drums group in their 30s is most likely going to be influenced by the Beatles, so paying tribute via cover version isn’t surprising, imaginative or creative. Now if the same band was influenced by Dionne Warwick or show tunes or Kriss Kross, now we’re onto something…
The Trashing- Another obvious cover type, especially in the punk and metal genres. It’s easy to take a popular song and grunge it up, make it faster or louder, knock some of the pretentious wind from its sails. But once you get past the cleverness of the concept of a a band destroying popular song x, the actual version has to be decent to bear repeat listens. I think Alien Ant Farm’s take of "Smooth Criminal" a few years back did this rather well. It’s a fine line artists tread here- it’s easy to play something sloppier or louder than the commercially popular version, and big stars are easy targets. The trashing needs to have a purpose other than just messing up a song. It has to provide laughs or sneers or some sort of reaction other than "Oh, yeah- I recognize it. So what?"
The Parody- Quite similar to the trashing, sometimes a cover is done for humorous effect by casting a new light by who is doing the cover, and in what style. The Gourds famous version of Snoop Dogg’s "Gin And Juice" is a perfect example of this (as well as of the reinvention style.) It’s odd to hear a bluegrass version of a rap tune, especially with Snoop’s never-ending party lyrics. A man singing a song associated with a woman or vice versa can have the same affect. Ultimately, with parodies, the joke has to be funny- the context has to work somehow.
The Re-Invention- My favorite type of cover, and it often is paired with one of the other categories above. This is where an artist really makes a song his own, really flexes their creativity. The Gourds did Gin and Juice as a rollicking bluegrass stomp- who would have come up with that? This is when cover versions are at their best- taking something familiar and re-casting it in a new form.
I plan on expanding on these ideas later, writing on specific cover versions, getting into the tribute album concept, and providing links to cover version MP3s as I can find them in free, easy-to-download locations. Stay tuned.