I’m a big fan of covers, particularly when a band puts a completely different spin on a song which allows the listener to view it from an entirely new perspective. I would even suggest, that one can best see the creative prowess of a musician through their ability to interpret a song in a way that changes absolutely, or even improves upon the source material. Equally, it is easy to see some musicians’ lack of musicianship through their covers, which fall flat due to their oversimplification of the originals or their insistence on trying to reproduce the original so accurately that it begins to sound generic and loses the personal touch of the musician covering the song.
There are two songs that I think are examples of how covers should be made. The first is a cover by Jamie Cullum of the song, ‘Not While I’m Around’ from the musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The original song is a typical musical theatre lament (it should be noted that I do not tend to like musical theatre all that much, but this song is one that I find interesting due to it’s use of harmony), so a good cover ought to change the piece in a way that removes that typicality and demonstrates the unique style of the performer. That is exactly what Cullum does, in that he keeps the elements of the song that made it interesting in the first place, but fundamentally changes its approach to rhythm and instrumentation, whilst also adding new parts to the song that fit seamlessly and showcases his own musical identity.
I would further suggest, that Chris Thile, mandolin virtuoso and band leader of Punch Brothers, has an excellent approach to covers. The song, ‘Heart in a Cage’ by The Strokes, featured on Thile’s album, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground, is an example of how you can fundamentally change the way a song feels through making more intuitive use of elements of the original than were used in the original. In this case, it’s the use of a descending, melodic pattern that is played by the lead guitar in the original song at only one point in the piece. Thile makes use of this short melody as a way to transition between sections, in a way that highlights the band’s ability to blend a single musical idea between all of the instruments. This results in a far more interesting texture in the Punch Brothers version of ‘Heart in a Cage’ than the original The Strokes version.
Unfortunately, as the demand for more genuine musical expression from musicians increases, the misconception that one cannot convey emotion through a new interpretation of an old song, spreads. This seems to have led to a lack of new, brilliant covers being recorded, and only being played at live performances. This is why series like A.V. Undercover (a series of videos from the A.V. club where bands are recorded covering a song that is meaningful to them) and projects like Snarky Puppy’s Family Dinner are so important. Not everyone can write a genuine and meaningful original song, so it is important that people don’t feel the need to fill 10 or 12 tracks on an album with original material that suffers because they don’t have enough solid musical ideas to cram into a full length LP. Interpretation is important and an excellent cover can have just as much value in a project as an excellent original track.