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Cover Me

A few nights ago I went to see some friends play in a garage-rock cover band called The Shadow Mortons. They cover mostly obscure songs, familiar to those who own the Nuggets box sets or who have a vast and rare 7" collection. Garage Rock is a perfect genre to cover: blues riffs made dirtier and looser, Motown style drumming, girl group influenced choruses, and hooks galore. The Shadow Mortons went so far as to play the set twice and no one seemed to mind.

Between that show and the mention of George Harrison's "If Not For You" in a recent blog post, I've been mulling over the idea of cover tunes in my head.

There are covers that showcase a more obscure and theretofore relatively underground songwriter or band. From Nirvana shedding light on the strange simplicities of The Vaselines, to Spoon turning the Natural History's "Don't You Ever" into, well, a Spoon song, to Mudhoney's "D**ks Hate The Police" (by D**ks, of course). And it is trite but important to mention the innumerable blues artists who wrote the original songs that white artists turned into massive hits. In many of the above examples, the discovery of the original band or song serves as a clarification. I love "Molly's Lips" by Nirvana but it makes more sense that it wasn't written in that urgent, frenzied style. And hearing Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog" turned a somewhat cartoonish lyric into one that sounded like a line being drawn in the sand.

And what constitutes that subtle difference between a cover tune and merely a different version of a song? Is it only semantics? Is it when the song becomes better associated with someone other than the composer? Like when "Mr. Tambourine Man" became as much The Byrds' as it was Bob Dylan's. Or how "Blinded by The Light" seems to belong to Manfred Mann's Earth Band when it is actually a Bruce Springsteen song?

Often it is a relief to discover another version of a song. "Take it Easy", as made popular by the Eagles, sounds far superior and more earnest as a Jackson Browne song (who was the original writer of the song, though Glenn Frey finished some of the lyrics). Actually, popular Eagles songs often sound better when sung by someone other than a member of the band. "Desperado" is a song I can tolerate only when sung by a child on the Langley Schools Music Project album.

With some covers, I vacillate between the original and the cover in order to gain a broader understanding of the song. Certainly, Ike and Tina Turner's version of "Proud Mary" takes that song somewhere a more rustic John Fogerty never could. But to hear the original is to comprehend the provenance, and thus to appreciate even more what Ike and Tina found in that song—and how deep they dug into the lyrics and the music.

Often, the best covers are not done, but undone. The artist unravels the cohesion of the original song and reconfigures things only after making a small mess of it. Patti Smith's "Gloria" comes to mind, or the White Stripes "Jolene". These covers don't deny the original song, instead they exist as distant cousins to it, or as the black sheep. And when paired with the original, they create a striking duality—good/bad, light/dark. The most remarkable thing about these covers is that when they were released they sounded brand new, and that's about the biggest tribute one can pay to a song.

[To read more about cover songs, check out: Best Cover Tune Ever on the All Songs Considered Blog].