A good cover song can really show off an artist’s talents. The ability to take another’s track and flip it, turn it, contort it into something that’s your own takes some ingenuity. No one wants to hear the exact same version of what’s been done before, so if you take a cover on, you better be able to do something with it. Not merely an homage, a good cover will propel an artist forward by making lucid what they’re all about.
Gone wrong, a cover song can expose the creative weakness of the artist taking it on. Did they try too hard? Did they do nothing original with the track? Did the original song just dominate the artist taking it on? At worst, a cover gone wrong can make you wonder why you liked that artist to begin with. Obviously somewhat subjective, but take a look at the list below for three cover songs that transcend.
Number One: Al Green – I Want to Hold Your Hand. You have to possess some real confidence to take on the Beatles. Legions of fans wait ready to claw you down for messing with the masters.
Luckily, Al Green does not lack in confidence. The track starts with Al muttering some nonsense into the microphone. This crooked intro signals Al could care less about the burden of taking on “The Beatles.” One of the background musicians yells out, “Shut up, Al Green.” Al Green just keeps murmuring nothings into the mic. Eventually, he laughs and then hurricanes in and makes the song his own.
His energy overwhelms, he just keeps finding another level. He adds little flourishes not in the original – “walk up and tell me” – he freestyles. That high note he hits at the 1:34 mark, just kind of effortlessly goes there, shows you his technical brilliance as a singer. The original song is just a blueprint, and he goes way off into his own territory with it. Soul-filled, imaginative, incredibly fun, Al Green teaches how to do a cover – and reminds you that he’s a towering musician in his own right.
Number Two: Devendra Banhart – Don’t Look Back in Anger. Just as you should be fearful of covering the Beatles, you also generally shouldn’t cover Oasis. Just go into any open mic in your town, and you’ll find some uninformed beginner musician yelling Oasis to a bunch of cold stares. It’s become a cliché to sing Oasis, and if it’s still an unwritten rule that you shouldn’t do it, it’s only because the people who write the rules just think it’s too obvious to pen down. Devendra, however, has the confidence to not care about the rule and hypnotizes in this playful cover of the Oasis classic.
What I love here is that the original has such seriousness to it and Devendra took a whole different angle: for that reason, this cover works. Bubbly sounds, strange vocal low to highs, a clean production, Devendra even puts on a coy accent – it’s all so light, so Devendra, and so different from the original. Interestingly, this totally new approach to the song really brings the lyrics out. If you didn’t already notice the talent in the songwriting of the original, you’ll notice it here. Like Al Green, Devendra feels unconstrained by the original and freewheels in lyrical detours. “I want to live like boys dressed like girls dressed like boys who give me head,” he mumbles. It makes little sense in the way Devendra can sometimes make no sense, but it also kind of sounds right. If you love Devendra, you’ll love the cover – if you want to hear a replica of the Oasis original, you might be really angry by this version. Maybe Devendra’s why the Oasis rule remains unwritten – because sometimes a musician can actually cover Oasis in a fresh way.
Number Three: Feist – Inside and Out. Feist takes on the Bee Gees. You immediately like Feist’s decision-making in choosing this artist and this song. It’s a great song that’s kind of lost a bit of momentum. Feist not only reminds you she’s great, but reminds you about this awesome track. Her strange ability to lightly create power and emotion resonates here. Her unparalleled voice comes from a delicate place, her screams have a softness to them, and somehow from this place of delicacy comes unshakable confidence and penetrating emotion. You’ll love Feist and the Bee Gees in this cover.