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Imitating or Reimagining: The Art of Musical Covers

Jackson Wyatt, Digital Editor-in-Chief

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Covers hold a charged and inconsistent position in the musical landscape. As a staple of both live performances and attention-grabbers for unknown and well-established acts, a good portion of the most popular covers grow to dwarf the original in size (think Whitney Houston’s rendition of “I Will Always Love You,” Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” or Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”). All are iconic in their own right and stand as pivotal career points for the artists given. At best, covers provide a fresh and electrifying take on pre-existing songs, separating themselves while still paying homage to the genius of the original. At worst, they can cause outrage and disgust, leaving a permanent mark on an artist’s discography and reputation. The choice to cover a song can be a risky decision, but the payoff is often extraordinary.

Now, I am not one to get offended over any rendition of my favorite musicians’ material. Songs are just songs, and a simple interpretation (no matter how stomach-churning) is never enough to ruin the reputation of the original. Still, I have preferences when it comes to their execution, and there are many covers that fall flat in my eyes. Why? What separates an amazing rendition from a head-turning misfire?

As a precursor, it should be said that a wide variety of factors lead into someone’s final opinion, and most of that belongs to personal taste. There must be contradictions in personal taste, though, and I am not claiming that my preferences are indisputable or susceptible to exceptions. They merely stand as an attempt to rationalize my gut reactions, and I tend to have a lot of them.

Below, I have given links to four covers and their original versions. All relate to my favorite band, Arcade Fire, in order to build some kind of connectivity. I will attempt to analyze my likes and dislikes of them to build a definitive list of what makes a cover good or bad in my eyes.

 

  1. Weaves, ‘Power Out’ (Arcade Fire cover)

 

Recorded by Canadian indie outfit Weaves for SiriusXM’s Polaris Cover Sessions, this rendition demonstrates how applying a strong alternative style to an already-established track can have stunning results. Frontwoman Jasmyn Burke says it best at the beginning of the video: “I just thought it would be cool to make it a little Weaves-y.” The group applies the same strong drive and spirit as the original, but with a more toned-down and deconstructed execution. Just look at the difference in both versions’ openings. Arcade Fire attack straight from the start, blasting the listener with a wonderful blizzard of instrumentation held together by heavy riffs and soft violin cries. Weaves takes a different route, placing the riff at the forefront in a cleaner state, aiding it with vocalizations from Burke. Their execution hinges on a successful use of the ‘Less is more’ mentality, removing some of the original’s integral elements to create a dynamic sense of tension and space. With the addition of memorable vocals and a loud-and-soft dichotomy reminiscent of Pixies (one of Arcade Fire’s initial influences), Weaves provides an alternative take that stands up to the mountainous sound of the original.

 

Weaves’ version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LmZT3_zej8E

Arcade Fire’s version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TA68f56yh80

 

  1. Hey Ocean!, ‘Sprawl II’ (Arcade Fire cover)

 

Canadian indie rock band Hey Ocean!’s cover of the penultimate track on Arcade Fire’s Grammy-winning album The Suburbs tones down the original’s energy too, but its effect varies. While Weaves adjusts the heat at points to expose previously underutilized elements of ‘Power Out,’ Hey Ocean! cranks the knob down to around zero for ‘Sprawl II’. Admittedly, there is something charming about the quaintness and sentimentality displayed in their rendition. The stripped-down execution lets the melodies breath and reach their full potential among some unique instrumentation and comforting vocals, but something simply feels missing. At first glance, the beginning’s twanginess seems to be the issue. As the cover unfolds and becomes more and more endearing, though, that initial hitch fades away. The hollowness of Hey Ocean!’s cover stems from the lack of integral elements that appeared in the original track. What makes ‘Sprawl II’ shine in Arcade Fire’s discography is its place as an anomaly in their pre-Reflektor material. Just in its respective album alone, ‘Sprawl’ sticks out as the lone synthpop track, revelling in a steady groove reminiscent of Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass.’ Its themes hit harder due to the other tracks’ context and the juxtaposition of desolate language with such joyous instrumentation. Without assistance from the pulsing beat and electrified atmosphere, the lyrics are left as a skeleton. It is a beautiful one, but not as interesting to take in.

 

Hey Ocean!’s version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i25zLvU_xcs

Arcade Fire’s version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rH_7_XRfTMs

 

  1. Arcade Fire, Maps (Yeah Yeah Yeahs cover)

 

As fast-rising up-and-comers in the 2000’s indie music scene, it seemed like a rite of passage for the Montreal band Arcade Fire to cover fellow alt-darling Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ emotional magnum opus, ‘Maps.’ The rendition may lack some of the original’s blazing confidence and clean production, but Arcade Fire’s take is auspicious nonetheless. Forgoing the iconic opening notes and heading straight to the infectious drumbeat, Régine Chassagne’s soft and breathy vocals may be difficult to take in at first. Wobbling with emotion and sunken slightly into the mix, they provide a slow build to the original’s immediate catharsis as the track progresses. Frontman Win Butler (who is also Chassagne’s husband) joins in with the chorus and provides a weightier vocal contrast, harmonizing alongside her. Their voices break in and out, overlapping and overpowering each other in varying degrees. It is an odd dynamic missing from the original, and it adds an exciting element when paired with the warm instrumental passages and the gradual release of tension near the cover’s close. Arcade Fire’s ‘Maps’ may lack some of the original’s assertiveness, but it makes up for any shortcomings with sheer passion and pathos.

 

Arcade Fire’s version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bsHmSglX24

Yeah Yeah Yeah’s version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3okiWGqKiA

 

  1. Arcade Fire, Green Light (Lorde cover)

 

Régine Chassagne’s voice is an acquired taste for many, but it plays an integral part in Arcade Fire’s vocalizations and a necessary foil for frontman Win Butler’s heartier tones. Many of their songs would feel empty without her contributions, and almost all of her performances hit the mark for me. Arcade Fire’s cover of Lorde’s 2017 track ‘Green Light’ is an exception to her usual successes, though. Recorded in the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge, the cover’s main, glaring issue is how little Chassagne’s voice fits with the song. It sounds weak in the opening verse and egregious when she reaches into an upper register for the refrain, melting down to awkwardness again for the chorus. Butler’s harmonizations are too whimpery and messy to add anything, so it leaves their rendition without any strong vocals to hold up the instrumentation. That is not particularly strong either, employing acoustic guitars as the only interesting addition to the original mix. At points, the background vocalists provide a nice touch, and the synth-like tones near the cover’s back-end don’t hurt, but it stands as an extremely weak impersonation of a track that does not reside in their wheelhouse.

 

Arcade Fire’s version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CG2LKVAakLM

Lorde’s version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJuygTp7ydE

 

What are the common threads of these covers’ strengths and weaknesses? As I said before, there’s some contradictions. The covers of ‘Maps’ and ‘Green Light’ by Arcade Fire are both rooted in instrumentals decently close to the original, but one sounds quaint and the other sounds flat. This could be due to their differing production styles. I have a soft spot for rougher, lo-fi recordings, so the fuzziness of ‘Maps’ feels much more atmospheric than the pop-sonics of ‘Green Light.’ Weaves’ ‘Power Out’ and Hey Ocean!’s ‘Sprawl II’ are both deconstructed versions of more energetic songs, but Weaves employs a more potent sense of tension and release.

Slight contradictions aside, though, I tend to gravitate towards covers that possess a strong drive, bold or passionate vocals, emphasis placed on unique elements of the original and a deconstructed feeling without reaching a complete lull. My hesitancy rests in flat or acoustic instrumentation, misplaced vocals, awkward harmonizations and the general loss of key elements necessary for some tracks’ presentations.

These are just my preferences, though. Everyone’s reactions are different, and the wonderful thing about covers is that they can make the same song appealing to anybody’s tastes. I would suggest researching what covers exist of your favorite band’s material if you have not already. Take a listen and try to make a final verdict. What do you like, and what do you dislike? Why? By confronting the limits to our own enjoyment, we can come to a better understanding of our reactions as a whole. Music is at its best as a visceral experience, but what structural elements make it so affecting?

What makes a cover quality in your eyes?

(All sources from featured video descriptions and featured artists’ Genius pages)

About the Writer
Jackson Wyatt, Digital Editor-in-Chief

"Writing has always been my biggest passion, and while I'm most comfortable writing fiction, East Highlights helps me fine-tune a lot of my skills."

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Imitating or Reimagining: The Art of Musical Covers