We’ve had a bee in our bonnet for quite some time, as anyone who tracks our tweets will know. What started off as a bit of harmless cross-pollination is now turning into a bit of a debilitating epidemic: cover versions are threatening our sanity.
It’s not that we don’t enjoy them. One of our fondest memories in formative years was to see a band tackle a song not their own, giving us the same thrill as when we used to watch WWE and they suddenly put together an unlikely tag-team (that was a long time ago, but you get what we mean). At best these covers take on a life of their own, sometimes a bridge into the mainstream; other times they introduce us to an artist we might not have been familiar with previously, plucked out of obscurity like a support band on an arena tour. Unfailingly, though, the mark of quality is the same: creative, clever spins on the original that don’t engage in one-upmanship, that revere the source material yet add a personal stamp.
The problem these days comes from two quarters: one, advertising. Ever since Charlene Soraia took The Calling’s Wherever You Will Go and turned it into a (admittedly wonderful) twee-folk ballad, there’s been a ridiculous pole-vault on to that bandwagon. Doing the rounds today are Sainsbury’s insolent takes on Chaka Khan’s Ain’t Nobody, keen to replicate the success Twinings had with Soraia. While these versions haven’t been performed by professional recording artists, the ethos still seems lacking; these covers are no longer tracks quietly disclosing an act’s influences, nor do they tell us anything about their creativity.
The second problem, unfortunately, comes from Radio 1’s Live Lounge. What was once a genuinely exciting chance to see an act tackle a cover version – often with fantastic results – has now become a routine slave to their playlist. So we have Jessie J turning I Knew You Were Trouble into a screechy ballad, Kings of Leon doing Dancing On My Own, and (most disappointingly) Haim embarrassing themselves over Wrecking Ball. The latter in particular seemed so last minute and shoehorned, completely exposing the weakness of their solo live vocal.
This isn’t just blog snobbery, as there’s guilt beyond commercial radio too, most notably this week from Say Lou Lou‘s take on Tame Impala, Jagwar Ma molesting Angel Haze (our favourite rap of the year), and Martina Topley-Bird duetting with Mark Lanegan over the xx’s Crystalised. The problems are apparent when you come to break down the thought behind each song and interpretation, which we don’t think the artists have done. I Knew You Were Trouble is an empowered pop song, an effect lost when it’s turned into a slow lament / showcase for melodramatic caterwauling. Dancing On My Own juxtaposes the irony of loneliness behind a thumping dance beat, neither of which Kings of Leon have the nous to reflect. Echelon loses all its fire when not being spat in bars. The ebb and flow in fragility on Crystalised is unsubtly attacked with two extremes and needless instrumentation.
It’s not that we have a problem with things like the Live Lounge – we very much appreciate the unique position it occupies on the airwaves, offering something very few others can. And we do appreciate the attempts from respectable acts to tackle something current without grandstanding. But the point is: just think about it a bit more. Think about why this song is being covered, other than that it’s current and sounds weirdly entrancing with different arrangements; there is after all a middle ground between that and a bog-standard Glee version. As much as we resent Ellie Goulding covering Active Child, it was done with a genuine admiration for the source material and was more successful as a result; hell, even the Saturdays had the class to cover Evelyn Champagne King for their latest B-side.
So give us Ellen McIlwaine‘s take on Can’t Find My Way Home. Give us Bon Iver doing Bonnie Raitt. Give us Stumbleine‘s version of Fade Into You. Give us Adele covering Promise This. Give us London Grammar‘s Nightcall. Give us the Staves and Songbird. And for God’s sake, give us something more original than Wicked Game.