A CERTAIN KIND OF LIGHT…
A whole album full of them.
No, not Weezer’s recent (and, to be honest, pretty misguided) teal album.
Introducing… Karl Blau.
Without wanting to sound too cliche, I really like a lot of Weezer’s work, and particularly their earlier records. Pinkerton and the Blue album are great. I love Say It Ain’t So and My Name Is Jonas. But that surprise covers album… ouch.
I want to give bands like Weezer the benefit of the doubt, and I have nothing against covers in principle. So what is it that makes this record – Karl Blau’s Introducing – worthy and interesting, while Weezer and other acts fall into the trap of the kitschy and unimaginative?
I’d argue that there’s three main factors at play here:
One of the most annoying things a band can do is an ‘ironic’ cover. Not only is it arrogant (and more than a little hubristic) to ridicule someone else’s creative endeavour, you can actually hear the wry, “oh-aren’t-we-so-clever” smile coming through in the music.
It’s punching down.
It’s the musical equivalent of a bad meme.
Ultimately, it’s just not very original.
Conversely, when an artist is covering a song they truly love, you can hear that, too. A respectful reverence, maybe, or a childlike glee at working out the magic behind the music they adore. Maybe even a little nod towards a biographical similarity between themselves and the original artist, or an out-and-out salute to a cherished influence.
Listening to Introducing, you can hear Blau’s passion and craft for the songs he’s singing. Though some of the tracks come from often-maligned genres like country and disco, he’s never trying to come off as too cool or like the whole thing is a big joke. (I’m looking at you, Weezer cover version of Africa.) He’s earnest and sincere, and it makes for a better record.
Toto’s Africa leads nicely into this next point, too.
In my opinion, it’s a bit of a faux pas to cover a band’s biggest hit; their most famous song that lives in the minds of so many as the archetype of their sound. Think about the band Toto, and you probably instantly hear booming drums leading into the anthemic chorus of Africa. Or maybe you hear some of the enigmatic lyrics from the verses. Maybe you hear the throbbing crescendo as the song fades into a final “ooh ooh.” Call it cheesy, call it eighties, call it whatever you want: it’s a remarkable piece of music.
And I don’t want to be reductionist here: with 14 studio albums, Toto’s back catalogue is surprisingly large. Though far from a one-hit wonder in their time, Africa was by far their most commercially successful song, and, outside of a devoted fanbase, is the only track that really lives on in the public memory. Pop music lovers of a certain vintage can probably recall hits like Hold The Line and Rosanna, but for so many, Africa is their perception of Toto.
So to cover it just seems… well, churlish. It’s basically karaoke.
The tracks selected for inclusion on Introducing, on the other hand are what we might call ‘deep cuts’. Slightly obscure hidden gems by artists you recognise for other hits. And because the songs have been picked out from different genres and time periods, even the biggest music nerds are unlikely to have heard them all.
Not only does this make the individual choices more meaningful, with tracks chosen because of a certain something that made them stand out to the artist, but as a whole it builds a fascinating picture of the palette of influences Blau pulls from. It’s almost like an episode of Desert Island Discs, where the record player has broken down but the castaway salvaged a guitar and a microphone from the shipwreck, and is ploughing ahead with their list anyway.
Obviously, artists don’t only need to go for something obscure when choosing a song to cover; but maybe they shouldn’t be seeking out a track to cover at all. Maybe a truly great cover version comes about when a song really speaks to them, and not when they’re looking for something to chuck on a B-side or pad out an album.
I’ve never really understood the point of cover versions that sound virtually identical to the original.
I mean, the original recording still exists, so why would anyone listen to a new version by a different artist?
To me, a good cover is one that takes a song and changes it. Breaks it down into its constituent parts, plays with them to figure out what makes it all tick, and then reassembles using some of the old parts and some new ones thrown in.
Sometimes this act of reinvention reveals something you never noticed in an older song. Take Iggy Pop’s version of the 50’s doo wop hit Sea Of Love: in Iggy’s hands, the sickly-sweet-to-the-point-of-cloying original becomes a delightfully creepy ode to obsession.
Or sometimes a cover can make something about the band covering the song clearer than it’s ever been before. Like the Slits’ cover of I Heard It Through The Grapevine: take a song that everyone knows and put your own stamp on it. Suddenly the formula for their brand of bombastic, proto-riot girrrl post-punk is right there. Their reinterpretation of a classic is like an insight into their own writing process.
So, if you’re going to cover a song, you’d better put your own spin on it. Right?
But, as I sat down to write this piece, I came across a YouTube clip (from the night before the time of writing) which made me reconsider this stance.
It’s Sinead O’Connor performing The Pogues’ Rainy Night In Soho (as featured in the playlist for the very first post in this 52 records series) for a late night talk show. Sonically, there’s not much to distinguish this from the original, vocals aside.
But there’s a bit of magic here: O’Connor, whose mental health troubles have been splashed all over the press in recent years and who has taken a long hiatus from recording, seems utterly lost in the song, itself a touching tribute to better times gone by. It’s one of the Pogues’ sweetest songs, and I was glad that not much had changed in this version. It felt right.
So maybe not every cover has to do things differently than the original version – as long as the covering artist has a little bit of magic of their own to bring to the table.
Reinterpretations and tributes of the highest calibre for you.