So, as we know from my procrastination post, I slack but this week is even worse. It’s for a good cause though because my band is playing a big show on Friday with everyone we know coming and us making actual money. Good money too. It’s been a crazy week of practice and I sat down to write tonight when a message popped up that none other than Lucky Tubb is in the nearest big town tonight for one night only. This guy is true blue country and I am working on a honky tonk defense playlist right now to explain to all our readers why I love this music so much. I have to go see him now so I am yet again going to slack on my writing. But you can be damn sure you will be getting a review in the am or soon after. He’s the son of the famous Ernest Tubb by the way so here is one of his famous ones for this quick post. Sorry Brother, I will post something longer as soon as possible.
So I have been trying to understand my obsession with youtube covers—specifically the ones that draw my attention. I don’t care about the covers performed by ‘real’ bands in ‘real’ venues. Instead, I have a strange penchant for people singing songs they love in their bedrooms, for non-professionals who are not well trained in self-presentation.
I have already talked more than most want to hear about cover songs, about my theories about different kinds of cover songs. I am a bit obsessed, I admit, in an amateurish kind of way, with what I might call the ‘ontological’ status of the cover song. What about a song remains sufficiently the same when it is translated from one performance to another that we can call it the same song? What is of the essence in a song’s repeatability?
Ok, that’s only part of the obsession. The rest, or perhaps the bulk, is about what we can understand from comparing different versions of the same song and what we learn about artists and ourselves when other people’s songs must be played.
(I learned that I was, at best, a mediocre musician.)
Everyone who learns to play the guitar experiments with playing other people’s songs. Some of us do only this; others of us spend as little time possible doing this before going on to try to write our own. But the end of the story is that pretty much everyone who plays the guitar plays cover songs.
Whether you play for 30,000 people in a sold-out arena or in your bathroom for the mirror and a cat, you perfect at least one of your favorite songs. You give it your own special twist just dreaming of the day that you can impress, move or at least wake up someone with your cover.
As I recently mentioned, for most wannabe and cub musicians, cover songs were something share with friends, something inflicted on strangers who wander into your proximity. Witnessing cover songs was something that happened by accident. But now, thanks to the interweb, cover songs can be packaged into short videos and shared with the world. We learn little of the context or personality of the performer, all we get is the performance of someone else’s songs.
I have been slightly obsessed with youtube covers, in part for the trainwreck effect—but I have also been amazed by the beauty and depth of some covers. I am not always impressed with the performance, but I am unmanned by the naked humanity on show for free online.
In my earlier post I mentioned a younger woman whose rendition of Mates of State’s “My Only Offer” was heart breaking in its simplicity and rawness. Another strange moment from the same girl: a cover of Bright Eye’s “First Day of My Life” starts with her asking her “best friend”, Janet the Cat, what song to sing:
Her vocals on this one are really nice (she hits a falsetto note that makes it seem like this song was written for a woman). The cover is still a bit fast, but I would buy it.
For the same song, this girl has a much jazzier voice (less heady, a little raspy) and many more fans (probably the eyes; she uses the camera better).
While she’s certainly good, I prefer the edgier, crazier cover, it seems less calculated. I don’t know if I want to know why she’s posting these videos.
From this same cover artist, however, the cover of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” seems more raw and honest.
In the video she makes fewer doe eyes at the camera and seems to be really inhabiting the song. When she gets to the payoff “I told you to be patient” she gets more country than jazz and doesn’t hit the tortured hurt of the original, but it is still a worthwhile version
Back to Feist: this duoprovides a really nice and faithful cover of “I feel it All”.
They change up the vocals just enough to reveal their greater talent in that category—the effect is musically enjoyable (almost a young Indigo Girls in the 21st century) but their performance can remind us all of the joy of playing a song with someone else.
I was struck enough by their Feist cover to stick around for their version of Arcade Fire’s “Keep the Car Running”:
The vocals, at least initially, are less strong (there’s not as much to work with in the material…Arcade Fire is more about style of singing than tone and variation) but it gets stronger by the chorus when it gets quite pretty.
My favorite recent, can’t disappoint, discovery: Pete the beat box does “Where is my Mind” by the Pixies:
I don’t care why Pete is posting this. I don’t care what he wants from the world. I just want to thank him. Thank you, Pete. You made me (and my daughter) smile.
What do you think brother, why do people post these videos? Will you be posting one soon?
Now, I have written before about the art of the cover song (and my own theories). So this is not an entry about that. Instead, I am interested in the way that technology and the modern media has changed the relationship between the learning musician and the covered song.
For instance, reality competition shows (American Idol; The Voice) have incentivized (even monetized) cover songs in a way that just didn’t exist when I was younger (apart from the karaoke stylings of Star Search). Everyone who can carry a tune has an audition song. Audiences have become accustomed to discussions of fidelity vs. originality in performances for years.