No matter how you slice cover songs, it somehow brings the room closer together. We all know the words, and we all have our own connection to the original recording. They become tweaked to the artist's interpretation and ability. We sometimes hold cover bands far higher than we hold an unknown original artist. It's the familiarity, the sense of having a bond with a piece of music, that draws us in. But what is it about them that distinguishes them from originals and what qualities count as good cover songs?
Every artist started off covering and mastering already released pieces before discovering their sound. In Kurt Mosser's “Cover Songs," Don Cusic states: “from an artist's perspective, covers provide a song proven to be a hit to the repertoire, show an important influence on the artist, and [most importantly] give the audience something familiar when introducing a new act." It's easier for many artists to stick to covering their favorite artists, or their audience's initial requests, to pay the bills. After all, in most cases, it's the covers that cover the bills.
Plain Jane, a mediocre cover band at best, has been voted one of Charleston's best cover/jam band. They hold patronage to performing local events than to original artists such as Megan Jean and The KFB and Whiskey Diablo, for examples. They all are recognizable in their right; through personality, musical ability, and fan following. Collective “home-grown" talents, including Dangermuffin and Shovels & Rope, have to venture beyond local locations to truly make a name for themselves. It's not that listeners didn't appreciate their talents before their break-throughs. They had to take the time to attend their performances, get to know them personally, and eventually let word of mouth spread. With a group like Plain Jane, an attendee automatically knows that they will hear something that they will enjoy (execution aside). It just seems to come down to holding a personal connection with an original artist or musical preference.
Nathan Calhoun of Calhoun's Calling, states that “the key is balancing the [song's] original form and structure with the cover artist's imagination to make it appealing." Calhoun is one of many singers serenading the Lowcountry. His bandmates include a drummer, bass guitarist, and saxophonist; combining classic rock, pop, alternative, and even some hip-hop. They do produce original work but ultimately “[covers] are a fun way to bring back classic songs as a performer and listener if done well."
The quality of what should be considered a good cover song is one that holds a variance from the original without it going completely unrecognizable. A mimic or repetition of the exact style becomes unexcitable after a time. An artist re-creating or showing a sense of inspiration to a particular track through their personable abilities is liberating.
Take Bob Marley's “Waiting In Vain." Historically one of the most recognizable tunes which holds accountability to reggae as a whole. But once the track is performed under a different genre by a separate artist, it practically becomes a new song with a transformed meaning.
Annie Lennox's soft rock take is much more subtle and smooth, almost romantic, thanks to the acoustic setting in vocals and guitar. It's as if her voice carries the agony of having to “wait in vain," whereas Marley accepts the notion despite disliking the situation.
Karsh Kale's [pronouced ka-lei] hypnotic creation is a slower arrangement. The lyrics stay the same but rearranged and accompanied by Susheela Rahman. The flute, sitar, and female vocal harmony are the crucial elements. This combination gives the sound of a beautiful sadness addressing the issue of waiting for recognition of a lover.
The value of reintroducing a previously recorded track within an array of musical palates helps avid listeners discover new music and, quite possibly, have an appreciation for an artist or style. Iron Horse, for instance, reinterprets songs like “Enter Sandman" and “Crazy Train" to traditional Americana/bluegrass audiences, who might not appreciate metal or classic rock. Moreover, Vitamin String Quartet adds a classical twist to modern pop/rock and beyond. This group, and colleagues, can play in diverse settings for all ages. The lack of vocals does not cause concern for offensive or distasteful lyrics. The only problematic situation would be a listener's distaste in chosen instruments. Whichever the outcome exposure is the key. It opens the door for listeners to expand their musical palates.
While encouraging artists to cover other artists, the value or reintroduction will likely fall short in the wrong voice (in some situations of degree). The iconic “These Boots Are Made For Walking" by Nancy Sinatra was practically “butchered" by a one miss Jessica Simpson. The vocal proficiency between the two could not be more derailed. Simpson broke in at a time where having the looks is before the vocal booth. In other words, actual vocal talent was and can be modified by technology to give the perception that the imager has/had the ability. (I am not necessarily denoting Simpson of all vocal ability just her displacement to Sinatra).
Both artists displayed femininity, but the messages are incompatible. Sinatra's voice was powerful yet seductive. It heeded a sense of 'I am a woman hear me roar' in a time where women were considered unequal civically to their male counterparts. During the 1960s, this message, although passionate still, gave empowerment that women are independent and just as capable as men. On the other hand, Simpson's words are dumb-downed and arguably unclear, despite the title. Her focus, whether it be in her interest or the label's, was purely sexual without a real meaning (real being the underlying message).
Does every song have to have a meaning period? Not necessarily. However, when it comes to covering another artist, the original message should play a significant role. What was the first artist relation to the song compared to the cover artist? More importantly, does it hold any value of reintroduction? Ultimately these are valued questions to become more acute active listeners.