The Thinking Man's Take On: Covers


I’ve long been a fan of cover songs, and I’m proud of it.I guess it stems from my embarrassing roots as a pseudo-hardcore Dave Matthews Band fan.  It began, most likely sometime in during those awkward, braces + flannel + voice-crack Middle School years, when "Dave" personally introduced me to Lyle Lovett (If I Had A Boat), Willie Nelson (Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away), and the great Johnny Cash (Ring Of Fire).As shameful as admitting to once being a Dave Matthews fan can be, if it led to me loving covers I’m willing to do it.  Hi my name is Chris, and I love covers.

There’s something about a good cover song that is just perfect – and difficult to capture.Some people hate covers with a passion, while others hunt them down like it’s their job.Some uphold them as worthy endeavors, others bemoan them as commercial pandering.Covers, like remixes, provide upstart musicians with a chance to prove their mettle in the context of a familiar tune.On the flip side, they allow established artists to take a step back, mess around in the studio one day, and release a song that is held under a smaller magnifying glass than usual.They exist on the fringe of the sphere of music criticism, and often seem more frivolously hobby-ish than painstakingly business-like.

Which is, of course, probably why we like them.Covers capture the essence of making music – the first time you hummed a tune that you heard on the radio, the strumming of some Nirvana chords on your first acoustic guitar, the complete freedom to do whatever you want with a song.But as with all good things, there is a method to the madness.Not all covers are created equal, and some suck pretty majorly.In my mind, here are the dos and don’ts of making a great cover:

1.Tempo Bending

Do:Switch up the tempo.One of the coolest things about covers is that they often change the style of a song so dramatically as to put it in a completely different light.Much of that comes from tempo changes.Everyone loves covers that slow down songs, revealing previously misunderstood lyrics and allowing for vocal flourishes that may not have been possible in the original.Introducing a beat and some speed into a slower song can pep up a cover and bring it to a different crowd to the original, and slowing a medium speed song down to a walking pace allows the artist to explore the melodies a little more.Covers that don’t differ from the original very much inevitably fall short, and a small tempo jump in either direction can clear up those boring cover blues.

Don’t:Slow down a song that has a repetitive chorus, or speed up a song that has intricate melodies.A little tempo change in these cases is fine, but the last thing I want to hear is the chorus of “Brim Full Of Asha” over and over and over again at a snail's pace.And when you speed up already ornate tunes, you lose what made them good in the first place.Choose your cover wisely, and bend the tempo in the right direction.

2.Rhythm Bending

Do:Add some extra percussion or some breakbeats, or a different intro, or a different bass line.Whatever you want, really, but change something about the rhythm.My favorite cover of all time, Dr. Dog’s version of Architecture in Helsinki’s “Heart It Races” puts handclaps in place of synths and tucks a completely different rhythm in the background, maintaining the same feel and melody of the song without mimicking it too closely.Good covers will often follow this pattern, exchanging backbeats for new patterns and allowing the artists to take a tune and really make it their own.Some of the more established cover artists rely on this rhythm bending to make their tunes different enough from the original to stand out.No one wants to hear your exact copy of The Ting Tings’ “That’s Not My Name”, but if you switch some rhythms up, Dizzee Rascall, you’ve got a bloghouse hit.

Don’t:Completely break the rhythm.As with the tempo, it’s pretty key that you not butcher the rhythm to an unrecognizable degree.Adding a throbbing techno beat is fine if it fits the song, but chopping up a Johnny Cash song and trying to turn it into a syncopated swinger just isn’t going to work.Similarly, don’t bend the melody.Tempo and rhythm are one thing, but melody is a completely different ballgame.Some of the best moments in covers come from hearing familiar tunes being sung at different speeds and by different artists, but usually when the melodies are changed the cover falls flat, even when the idea seems great on paper(see: Grizzly Bear covers Paul Simon).Bend the tempo and the rhythm, but don’t change a note of that melody.

3.Genre Bending

Do: Bend genres!It’s like gender bending for music!Genre switches are probably the best, coolest, greatest part about covers.I love hearing banjo in a cover of George Michael’s “Faith”, or contrasting Rage Against the Machine and Jose Gonzalez’ versions of "The Ghost of Tom Joad".Radio One’s compilation from a couple years ago had some amazingly ambitious genre bending that hit the high points on a collection of covers.And who doesn’t love Dynamite Hack’s “Boyz In The Hood” or Jonathan Coulton’s take on “Baby Got Back”? Only fools.

Don’t:Be ridiculous.There are very few songs that can’t take a good genre bend, but if you find one, don’t push it. For instance, don't follow The Moog Cookbook's model and record an entire album of classic rock covers on a Moog synthesizer and call it "Ye Olde Space Band Plays Classic Rock Hits". Covers shouldn’t be recorded just for the sake of recording something – make them fun, make them witty, make them beautiful, but make them with some substance.

So those are my thoughts on covers.Some slight bends (and no breaks) can easily create an enjoyable new take on the old standards.I’m sure there are exceptions (well actually, I’m not sure, so if you know some let me know) but no good covers ever really grab my attention without doing all three of these bends to some extent.

Favorite covers ever?Exceptions I should check out?Let me know.In the meantime I’ll be cranking Max Vernon and the sublimely bad Moog Cookbook.

Max Vernon - I Kissed A Girl (Katy Perry Cover)

The Kooks - Violet Hill (Coldplay Cover)

First Aid Kit - Tiger Mountain Peasant Song (Fleet Foxes Cover)

Chris Barth is a guest-blogger here at Pretty Much Amazing.  You can read his daily entries at his blog, The Stu Reid Experiment.