2/20/17: On the Merits of Covers

Last Sunday, the Grammy’s “In Memoriam” section was both a painful goodbye to some truly groundbreaking musicians, and a welcome reminder that great art cannot be contained within one lifetime. We had to know that Prince’s “Lovesexy-ness” would outlast his body. Or that Sir George Martin would cease to exist long before his arrangements.  Or that if Juan Gabriel’s voice could reach me, a white boy from rural Wisconsin, it was not going anywhere soon. Yet as John Legend and Cynthia Erivo masterfully flowed through “God Only Knows,” the absence of the deceased artists still hurt. Even as John Legend  proved that a wonderfully written piece of music can be just as relevant in 2017 as it was in 1966, we fretted over lost icons. Watching the faces of late artists scroll by was sad, but it was also incredible to know that their gift influenced music, society, and culture for decades, and will continue to do so for decades to come.

Artists talk about their influences constantly. It’s one of the first questions in almost any magazine interview, and a list is usually readily available on the artist’s website and Facebook page. Artists incorporate their influences into every piece of music they create, but the most obvious method of admiring one’s inspiration is to cover a song. Covers can honor the past, spur new conversation, add another perspective, bring music to a new audience, and allow a broader group of people to experience a piece of art. (Granted, they can also ruin something masterful, but let’s focus on the good here.) Over the last few weeks, John Legend, Vulfpeck, and Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau have released their spins on classic rock songs, bringing new instruments, new emotion, and new meaning to already great songs. Each strengthens the argument that there is a place for covers in music. No shared piece of music dies. A good cover not only lets it live, but thrive.

God Only Knows

What John Legend did at the Grammy’s was brilliant. He took a song with a pleasant melody and resonating lyrics, and stripped it of its terrible parts. Each time I listen to The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” I’m more and more impressed that they managed to build such a beautiful song on top of such an atrocious beat. Most of the song is a monotonous drawl of staccato piano and sleigh bells. Sleigh bells of all things! On top of that, the Beach Boys almost seem happy when they sing, “The world could show nothing to me/So what good would living do me?” Still, their voices are so lovely, and the song is so meaningful that it is constantly ranked as one of the best pop songs of all time.

 John Legend’s version, released the day after the Grammy’s, thankfully has no sleigh bells. Instead, his and Cynthia Erivo’s voices are complemented by a flowing symphony. A web of orchestral instruments creates a full sound as the piano, the violin, and the French horn take turns countering the crisp voices at the forefront of the song. Legend and Erivo allow more time for the song to develop than the Beach Boys do. Whereas the Beach Boys chug along at their usual, peppy pace, Legend and Erivo favor holding on to notes to augment the song’s meaning. The result is a beautiful, new love song.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright

John Legend transformed a familiar tune, but kept the song’s original meaning intact. If anything, he added sincerity to a song that was already supposed to be sincere. Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau went further with their recent release of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” They converted Bob Dylan’s somber, introspective, post-breakup song into something  fun and a little cheeky.

When Dylan sings the lyrics, “Don’t think twice, it’s alright,” I’m unsure if he is telling the truth. Dylan once said that the lyrics are “a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel better…as if you were talking to yourself.” After a difficult end to a relationship, he is struggling to convince himself that everything will be ok. Most of the song is a thought process, with sometimes contradicting ideas in the same stanza. For example:

“But I wish there was something you would do or say
That would make me change my mind and stay,
But we never did too much talking anyway.
So don’t think twice, it’s alright.”

Dylan is definitely thinking twice about the relationship, but finds himself more alright as the song progresses. His solemn harmonica accompanies him throughout the song to emphasize the difficulty of the breakup.

I can imagine Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” resonating with someone who handles heartbreak with introspective thought and solemn reassurances. However, I am not that person. My post-relationship checklist includes quick crying sessions, usually followed by some irrational anger, and then plenty of stretched rationalizations that prove to myself that I’m right about everything. After a few weeks, I stabilize, admit where I was wrong, and move on, for the most part. Though emotions rush in and out of my mind, despair is not one of them. Therefore, I don’t feel much when listening to Bob Dylan sing “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”

From the first piano chord, it is evident that Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau are, in fact, alright. Chris Thile doesn’t begin singing until a minute into the song, but by that time, his mandolin and Mehldau’s piano have created a sense of poise and happiness. When Thile sings, “You’re the reason that I’m traveling on. Don’t think twice. It’s alright,” he isn’t convincing himself to stop thinking, but rather challenging his former partner to think twice. As the song continues, Thile’s tone makes it more evident that he is fine, but he wants to make sure his ex-partner knows what she lost.

Thile transforms Dylan’s sad response to internal thoughts into a witty response I wish I could conjure up whenever I feel hurt by someone. A level of sass is present throughout the song, but it’s the clever type of sass – the type that makes it seem like you’re taking the high ground while you land subtle jabs. The final line, “I ain’t saying you treated me unkind/You could’ve been better, but I don’t mind/You just kinda wasted my precious time/Don’t think twice, it’s alright” sounds petty when Thile sings it. Petty, but satisfying. And sometimes, people need to be a bit petty to help them move on. It is quite a testament to Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize winning lyricism that his somber lyrics can be converted into something clever and sassy by changing a voice’s tone.

Something

As evidenced by John Legend, Cynthia Erivo, Chris Thile, and Brad Mehldau, covers can infuse emotion into a song, or change its meaning entirely. They can be powerful avenues to bring a piece of art to a new audience. While that is all well and good, sometimes you just want to hear some of your favorite people sing some of your favorite songs. That’s how I feel about Vulfpeck’s rendition of “Something” by the Beatles.

Since Vulfpeck was founded in 2011, they’ve released non-stop fun. That is exactly what they bring to “Something.” Granted, the cover is not their best work, and if I was trying to concoct a romantic evening, I would rather hear George Harrison’s voice. Still, there is a refreshing amount of freedom in Vulfpeck’s rendition I can’t help but enjoy. Though they stay true to much of the Beatles’ original song, there is still value in their cover. Through Vulfpeck’s passionate performance, I remember why I loved “Something” so much originally.

T.S. Eliot once said, “Immature poets imitate. Mature poets steal.” (Some sources credit Pablo Picasso originally with the quote, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” Either way, both quotes were probably stolen from someone lesser known.)  All art is stolen, whether “original” or covered. Covers walk a dangerous line between being innovative and being lazy. Fortunately, artists such as John Legend and Chris Thile have taken Eliot’s advice and decided to be innovative. When arranged and performed correctly, covers are not just stolen pieces of art. They are stolen, dissected, and refurbished.

It was a good few weeks for covers of classic 60’s songs. For that, they are my Sunday’s Best.

Honorable Mentions:

The Stoop Kids (Tahoe) – For continuing to impress. Easily my favorite band of the last year, “Tahoe” is the latest in a string of very good singles.

Dirty Projectors (Cool Your Heart) – For cooling my heart with this pleasant, electronic piece.

OK Go (Interesting Drug) – While we’re on the subject of covers, this one surfaced at a pretty good time to describe our current political climate.

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