Thursday, May 03, 2007

Cover Me

Until recently, with a few exceptions, I had not really been a fan of cover versions. My default position has been, almost invariably, original is best. Perhaps it was just the cover versions I had been exposed to weren’t that great. A lot in the rock genre just seem to me to be unimaginative, too close to the original, and just plain derivative. In the soul world when an artist performs a cover version, especially of a well known pop song, too often I feel somehow short changed. It seems some songs don’t suit a soul treatment and both the song and the singer’s delivery end up diluted.

Of course there is the question of what constitutes a cover version? Plenty of artists perform songs written by somebody else.
Down the line a song may well have been recorded by ‘the original artist’ but gone unnoticed. Each of us have probably listened to many cover versions not realising they are, as we are unfamiliar with the original. So in that case could it then be said that, from the listener’s point of view, the cover version could be seen as the original version and, if subsequently heard, the original version could be regarded as the cover version?!
Then there is the jazz world to consider. Jazz is full of artists interpreting and reinterpreting established tunes, but I never think of those as cover versions.
In reggae, especially roots reggae, there were many variations on a common dub or rhythm track and they were actually called "versions".
Somehow, though, to my mind a cover version has to be a vocal for starters. So for me perhaps, in an accepted sense, a cover version could generally be regarded as a vocal recording of a song that is already established in the general public consciousness – i.e. it has previously been a hit, widely played, or an entry in the “Great American Songbook”, that sort of thing. But there again if the song is generally recognized as being part of the “Great American Songbook” (whatever that is exactly) it’s probably been recorded hundreds of times already. At some point perhaps it could be said that a song moves into open season and further recordings of it are no longer seen as a cover.

Confused by these ramblings? I am – completely!

Something has triggered this rambling though. Recently there seem to have been a lot of cover versions featured in the blogosphere (at least on the blogs I regularly visit). Alex at Moistworks recently posted no less than five versions of “Since I Fell For You”; somewhere (sorry whoever you are, I can’t remember where I heard this now) recently you could find Aretha’s great rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”; and of course Oliver Wang has just released his SoulSides2 CD on which every track is a cover. What nearly all of these tracks have made me understand is that you should not dismiss a cover version, and I will not be so sniffy about them in the future.

Got The Fever recently featured some delicious tracks from Jeannie Bryson’s new album. A name I was not previously familiar with. One of the tracks was her take on Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me”. I loved that record when it first came out. I really like Jeannie’s version and it prompted me to dig out The Isley Brother’s 1974 album “Live It Up”. Amongst all the original Isleys material on that album was another great version of “Hello It’s Me”. Maybe some songs are so strong you cannot make a bad cover. (On their previous album, the classic “3+3”, they had also included two covers – the Doobie’s “Listen To The Music” which wasn’t great shakes, and Seals & Croft’s “Summer Breeze” which was simply magnificent).

As well as the Isleys I’ve thrown in another track today for good measure – Elkie Brooks doing a Ned Doheny penned song “Learn To Love” (from her 1978 album “Shooting Star” – for the most part a gently soulful and funky affair, albeit Elkie’s voice can be an acquired taste at times). It has a similar laid back feel so fits well. Ned wrote it and probably recorded it but I have never heard it so Elkie’s performance to my ears is the original, although in reality it’s a cover. But then Ned’s recording, if it exists, is hardly well known so would Elkie’s version still be classed as a cover?

I’m confused again, I think I better go and lie down (and listen to these great tracks once more). Cover me – with a sheet!

The Isley Brothers – Hello It’s Me 1974
Elkie Brooks – Learn To Love 1978


Anonymous said...

Your choice of the Isley's track (which surprising as it may seem, I have yet to hear) may prompt you to pull out a copy of "Giving It Back". I am partial to "Ohio/Machine Gun" and "Lay Lady Lay".

Robert Cass said...

Also on "3+3" are covers of James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" (Taylor's original is good, but Ronald Isley really makes the cover version ache) and Jonathan Edwards's "Sunshine (Go Away Today)," which is superior to the folky original, if you ask me. The Isley did a lot of covers of white artists' songs in the '70s, which was interesting when you consider, of course, how many white artists stole from black artists in the '50s and '60s. I don't think anything can top Rundgren's version of "Hello It's Me," which was originally recorded by his old band Nazz, thereby making Rundgren's version a cover in some ways, but the Isleys give it a good try.

WZJN said...

I actually like the Isley's version which I hadn't heard before - thank you! Great post with the addition of Elkie Brooks.

Glad you like the Jeannie Bryson - I really worship at her feet for her version of "Am I Blue".

Darcy said...

Well there you go you see. "3+3" is up there in my top 10 albums of all time and I didn’t realise there were so many covers on it.

And while I am familiar with the Isleys 60s output their 1970-72 phase was not really on my radar. I would have to find a pretty deep crate to pull "Giving It Back" out of methinks.

So it seems maybe "3+3" was a bridge album between there c1970 phase, "Giving It Back" being full of covers, and 1974 and beyond where they concentrated on more original output (didn’t they?).
Boy, did they do some great covers.

I made no recourse to background research on this post as you can no doubt tell!

Thankyou all for your valuable comments. So much music, so little time, as they say.

Robert Cass said...

1972's "Brother, Brother, Brother" is also a bridge in some ways: it contains two Carole King covers and a Jackie DeShannon cover (as well as their all-time classic "Work to Do," which has been covered by Average White Band, Vanessa Williams, etc.). I guess the Isleys did concentrate more on original material after '73, but their material becomes less interesting after 1975's "The Heat Is On," so maybe they should've done more innovative covers.

soulbrotha said...
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