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|Written by Mike Cullen|
|Wednesday, 22 September 2010 00:00|
There are moments when my music snobbery shows through. They aren't often, but they are extremely serious -- especially when someone tells me that I need to listen to an awesome cover of a certain song. For example, I am one of those firm believers that it is nothing short of blasphemy to cover the Beatles. More often than not, covers are cringeworthy. The artist covering the track either tries too hard to put their own spin on the song that they miss the original point, or they do a straight-forward cover that really, compared to the original, should not have existed in the first place.
However, there are times when a cover is so good -- no, so badass -- that it not only does the original song justice, but takes it to a whole new level. In the last little while, I've come across three very noteworthy covers that everyone should give a listen to.
Muse covering Nina Simone's "Feelin' Good"
Interestingly, this is a case of a band covering a cover. While most people associate Nina Simone as the singer on "Feelin' Good," one of the quintessential vocal jazz songs from the middle of the last century, she is in fact not the original artist of this track. The song was originally done for the 1964 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint -- The Smell of the Crowd. It was not until a year later that the Simone version was released, but for all intents and purposes, due to the cultural impact her version of the song has had, we'll call it the de facto "original".
A colleague recommended the Muse cover to me not too long ago. I only have a passing knowledge of the band, so when the colleague told me she had the cover, it both intrigued and frightened me. We're talking about a classic, classic jazz song, and a band that is known for a harder, darker edge to their music. Not that a darker edge could not be added to a song like "Feelin' Good," with its already moody aesthetic, but I expected a cover by Muse to be overwrought and completely over the top.
The song, covered for their second album, Origin of Symmetry, features an obviously more rock oriented sound, and while there are moments where lead singer Matthew Bellamy does take it into the overwrought territory, remarkably, it completely works. The edgier instrumental arrangement doesn't take away from the original feel of the song, and vocally, a song that was intended for a female voice works just as well when sung by a man. (Sadly, Michael Bublé's version of this song doesn't come anywhere close to accomplishing what Muse does.) In the end, the band manages to play with the song in a way that makes it their own unique rendition, without losing the essence of the original track.
Florence + The Machine covering Candi Staton's "You Got the Love"
The original gospel-infused dance song by The Source featuring Candi Staton was originally released in 1991 and is a favourite song of mine. Fans of Sex and the City will recognize it as the song that plays at the very end of the final episode of the series. This song is remarkable for its production; it sounds just as fresh now as it did when it was released nearly twenty years ago. Considering that most dance music from that era sounds dated at best, this is a massive accomplishment for Staton.
Florence + The Machine covered the song for Florence Welch's debut album, Lungs. Florence's cover of this song is one of the biggest highlights of what is probably one of the best debut albums I've heard in a long time. She makes it her own, and with her gutsy vocals takes the song to a level that Staton probably never even considered. The instrumentation of the song changes slightly, but still manages to retain the uniqueness of the song. In both versions there is a sense of pure euphoria in the track. Staton's version, while good, almost plays it safe vocally, whereas Florence + The Machine successfully take that song to the next level, creating a cover that I actually love even more than the original (though much respect to Candi Staton's version as well).
India Arie covering Don Henley's "The Heart of the Matter"
Ah, Don Henley. "The Heart of the Matter" was originally done by him in a very late '80s/early '90s rock ballad kind of way. It's not a particularly big song, and in fact the only reason why I have heard this one in the first place is because of the cover done a few years ago by R&B singer India Arie. Surprisingly, though, despite the cheesy feel of a time period in music best forgotten (or at least ill-remembered), the song has a lot going for it. Thankfully someone like India Arie came along sixteen years later to do this song real justice.
Arie's cover, completed for her third album, features a more gospel sound. Her soulful voice carries the song in a way that Henley probably intended but could never achieve with his own voice (if the gospel-sounding backing vocals in the original version are any indication). The real beauty in this cover is in the true appreciation that Arie shows. There's a great video of her performing the song at a jazz festival in Europe a few years ago, where she said that "The Heart of the Matter" and Rihanna's "Umbrella," which she sang as well during that performance, were instances where she wished she had actually written the songs -- a beautiful sentiment to go with a stunning cover version.
We are usually quick to judge a cover version, dismissing them at best as second rate hack jobs, but there are those rare moments when a cover of one of our favourites shines through. It's even rarer when the song trumps the original, but perhaps that truly speaks to the testament of the song. These three songs are excellent examples of how cover songs, when done well, can elicit a response that in some cases (notably India Arie with "The Heart of the Matter") the original couldn't.