Covers, and considering the familiar

Song covers, good and bad, expose something new in the familiar. The pleasure is that you’re never sure what will be exposed. Something about the original song or the original arrangement? Maybe the lyrics are better than you thought, or much worse. That the covering artist is a genius? An idiot? A cover gives you a new way to hear into the song, stripping away the particulars of the arrangments and performance so that you can discover the essence at the core.

This morning on Cover Lay Down I discovered a set of Tom Petty covers that were full of what a yoga teacher might call “new information.” Free Falling, that genius arena sing-along is, lyrically anyway, as empty as it’s characters:

“She’s a good girl, loves her momma, loves Jesus, and America too.”

So what made the original so effective? What was it about that chorus that made you want to meet 50,000 of your closest friends at Busch Stadium on a summer night so you could all admit how lost you are? This cover strips away Petty’s performance and arrangements, and you realize that’s where the genius lived–in the distinctive roaming bass line moving underneath that plaintive lead vocal, in the exquisite balance between bass, strumming guitar, and Tom’s vocal, and in all that empty space in the middle: that’s where we come in–all 50,000 of us are invited to sing background. And Tom really sells that vocal: he’s lost, you buy it.

So what were the Kings of Convenience thinking with that earnest reading? The song isn’t strong enough on it’s own: it doesn’t stand up to their Simon and Garfunkel preciousness. Despite that, the audience sings along anyway–they must be remembering the original–and almost rescue the experience.

But earnest works for Dawn Landes’s cover of Won’t Back Down. Tom works the successful side of familiar with the lyrics on this one:

“Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out
Hey I will stand my ground
and I won’t back down.”

It’s a resolute truth, spoken simply, and Landes’s understatement highlights the strength of the words. Compare that to David Baerwald, whose vocal goes from polished phony drama to weird phony growling. All the ornamentation conveys one thing: you’re lying. Leave the ornamentation aside, find the essence, and express that.

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