I was reminded, aurally, of The Fugees’ suburb rendition of Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly two nights ago while out with a friend. I bought it the next morning. Lauryn Hill brings her strong persona to a song about an unassuming woman who goes to see a celebrated young musician only to find herself undone by the end of the evening. Flack must be acknowledged as the initial purveyor of the song—the one who introduced into the public consciousness—but Hill’s expression is, in my opinion, much, much better. She may have been “miseducated” but she is in consummate control on this track. She knows what she’s doing. Her melodic vocalization from 3:12-3:48 against a simple R&B backbeat is worth the price of admission—it might leave you undone as well, be careful.
How can an artist take an original track and improve on it? I mean, the vision was birthed, so to speak, in the heart and mind of the initial performer and yet, somehow, someone can catch that vision and bend it ever-so-slightly and produce something familiar, yet altogether refreshing, and in some cases, better. Consider Aretha Franklin’s exceptional version of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. The original has long been a great strength to me: one of those few songs in my phone that will actually clear up any mood in which I may find myself—should I remember to listen to it amidst the bustle of a miserable day. Franklin opens with a little-bit-different introduction (“Still waters run deep…if you’ll only believe”) then proceeds to express a minute-or-so long ditty on the piano with a somber organ accompanying; this is the Gospel according to Aretha. She says towards the end, “sail on Silver Boy” (as opposed to “Silver Girl” from the original) and it feels like she’s speaking right into me. Then again, as I take in the original in contrast, I am reminded of one of the purest expressions of selfless friendship I know. Either one, however, is pure poetry set to music that heals the heart.
Then there’s Cream’s reimagining of the seminal blues tune Crossroads. While it’s mythologized in Americana that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for a little musical acumen (it could be that he stole it from Satan, who knows?), Eric Clapton takes it one further in adding his Sixties rock sensibility to one of the greatest blues songs of all time. Taking on such a heavy responsibility as representing the flagship song of an entire genre is sobering and Cream pulls it off with aplomb. Going further, Rush’s rendition from their 2004 album Feedback is even better and, dare I say it, the live album from that year’s tour features a performance that edges out the studio version ever so slightly.
What about those songs that may not have been given the best polish in subsequent recordings? I was impressed with Guns N’ Roses Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door when first I heard it. Upon discovering Dylan’s original, however, that admiration was broken. I don’t mind the aforementioned cover but Bob Dylan is that total package of hopeless yearning somehow extruded in an honest way and that Axl Rose and his crew cannot hope to touch. Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm is done up right by Rage Against the Machine but again, his resignation and subtle carelessness is not to be found in De la Rocha’s complaint over working for a tyrannical family. Doesn’t mean that either cover is bad, just that in my opinion, Dylan’s emotional vein was not tapped and therefore the author’s original intent may not have been conveyed as well as it could have (or was).
For lateral covers—songs that are reimagined without respect, so to speak, to what the first artist had in mind—nothing impresses me more than The Punch Brothers’ Bluegrass take on Radiohead’s Packt Like Sardines in a Crush’d Tin Box (Amnesiac, 2000). Thom Yorke said it well when he said “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case”. And yet the Punch Brothers take the original and imbue new life into what is essentially a song about a crazy man coming to his senses a little after the fact (this is my interpretation). The way The Punch Brothers translate Radiohead’s gamelan-sounding (Indonesian orchestra) first track to fiddle, guitar and banjo (and upright bass) is brilliant.