Culture, Music

Cover songs and why they spice up life

Busker Charlotte, London riverbank, Feb 22, 2014, by Nate Edwards (3840x2160)Sometimes a good cover version will bring out a side to a song – and the musician performing it – that you never knew was there. This week I’ve been reminded of that in three ways.

The first was Ella Eyre’s version of ‘Going On’ by Gnarls Barkley. This song falls into the category of ‘nearest-and-dearest-so-don’t-you-dare-mess-it-up’. Famed for featuring on Rudimental’s ‘Waiting All Night’, Eyre is a stupendous singer, but I think there’s always going to be some trepidation when it comes to covers of songs that mean a lot to you.

Thankfully, Eyre’s version is precisely the kind of well-crafted homage I’d expected from someone who has a real love for the blissful pairing of Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo. The hypnotic guitar whine and organ keys of the original are replaced with warm bass grooves and tropical-sounding hand drums, while Eyre and the chorus of backing singers lift you skyward with their voices. It retains the spirit of the original while bringing a fresh feel to the song.

Frank Ocean’s tribute to Aaliyah on what would have been her 36th birthday also caught my ear this week. The ‘At Your Best (You Are Love)’, is an Isley Brothers track from 1976 that was covered by Aaliyah in 1994. Composed simply of a soft piano melody and Ocean’s vapour-light cries, it’s thoroughly arresting. And for those that know squat about the life and times of Aaliyah (well, they weren’t going to watch that bio-pic, were they?) or the Isleys, but do know of Frank Ocean, tributes such as this are strong encouragements to seek out the history and music of bygone artists.

Finally, The Voice UK is back for its fourth season on BBC1. Watching the nation’s bricklayers, teaching assistants, ambulance drivers, tribute acts and whomever else step into their amateur singer shoes to audition can be just as cringeworthy as it is entertaining. Sometimes they’ll disappoint, sometimes they’ll amaze and sometimes they’ll come out with something completely unexpected. Hannah Symons’s version of ‘Powerless’ may have been a little wobbly compared to series-one-alumni-turned-singer Becky Hill’s, but considering she co-wrote the song with Rudimental, it’s pleasing to hear a new approach to it.

You can follow a recipe for fish stew from a master chief, but it’s not uncommon to make amendments or additions of your own. Interpreting recipes for yourself is part of the joy of cooking. The same could be said for singers covering material by other artists and composers. It has to be said that we mustn’t let originators be forgotten even if their original version isn’t for us, because we wouldn’t have alternatives without it. But choosing to do a cover in the first place says a lot about the musician performing it too (ie their music taste, knowledge of music history). Imitation is a useful exercise and cover songs are so often the starting point when those who appreciate music begin to make it themselves.

Image: Nate Edwards/Flickr