As a classically trained musician, I came to the serious concert stage through the garage. As such, I struggled with my own personal musical identity for sometime. How do the different sides of my experiences, interests, and training coalesce to form one musician? Let alone, how do I interpret the music of JS Bach when I’ve also been musically informed by Built to Spill and Thelonious Monk?
A few summers ago I had a sort of revelation on this topic while watching David Rawlings and Gillian Welch cover the Johnny Cash and June Carter classic, Jackson. Their rendition of this song struck me as both true to the iconic Folsom Prison recording and uniquely personal at the same time. At this moment I felt a great sense of relief as it occurred to me in a new light that I too could perform canonical repertoire regardless of performance precedents. In other words, their performance showed me that I could be true to my own technique and musicality, while not feeling overwhelmed or pressured by the iconic recordings that preceded my own work.
Thank you David Rawling and Gillian Welch for this experience. I know performances can be interpreted by audience members in different ways, but I wonder if they ever thought that their performance would directly aide my work to interpret and perform the Fantaisie Elegiaque opus 59 by Fernando Sor – a really beautiful composition I was working on at the time.
As homage to this experience, I’ve dug through my itunes mega-catalogue and picked out my Top Five Ironic Cover Performances. This collection of five is my favorite examples of artists borrowing material from unexpected sources and then lending their own unique and personal interpretation to it. I have decided that bootlegs from live concerts should be omitted from consideration since the live stage is typically reserved as a one time only kind of experience, and because studio recordings require more forethought and express a desire for longevity. I also wanted to make clear that while it might be ironic for these artists to reach into unexpected genre categories for inspiration, there is nothing sardonic or insincere about these covers. You dig?
Kelly Clarkson released the original recording on her second album Breakaway in 2004. A year later, Ted Leo covered the song and mashed it up with Maps from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I have to give props to Steve from TWD for turning me on to this recording back when it was released. He is a huge Ted Leo fan and was all over this one. The reason I include this performance in the Top Five is because of how true to the original Ted Leo remains when he performs it – the obvious divergence into Maps aside. The performance is successful because Ted strips it down to its acoustic skeleton and sings it loud and proud. Ted Leo saw past the American Idol image that this song was originally branded with and gave it back as a great pop tune with an infectious hook.
Originally released by Depeche Mode in 1989 on their album Violator, Johnny Cash brought new life to the song in 2002 on the album American IV: The Man Comes Around; his final living album. Let’s face it, Cash was prolific and everything he touched in his final years became gold; he was pop music’s very own King Midas. From Soundgarden to Simon and Garfunkel, the breadth of his musicality new no bounds. I had a hard time choosing just one Cash cover for this list but I settled Personal Jesus from Depeche Mode because quite frankly, no one saw this coming and it fit his style, personality, and religious fervor perfectly. Nice work Mr. Cash.
The self-titled album from The Cars in 1978 gave us the original cut, but The Smashing Pumpkins released their recording as part of the box set The Aeroplane Flies High in 1996 which was a kind of expansion pack for their studio album Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness. The thing I enjoy most about this recording is that it illuminates to me a piece of Billy Corgan’s mindset and musical influences during the time when he was writing some of his most influential material. After hearing this recording I listened differently to the Melancholy album, and really enjoy knowing that Rick Ocasek may have had a bigger hand than we ever knew in crafting some of the most iconic sounds of the mid 1990s.
The original recording is found on Pavement’s final studio release Terror Twilight from 1999. However, it was covered by Nickel Creek in 2002 and released on their Grammy winning record, This Side. Chris Thile and company have the kind of slick musicality and technique that allows them to tackle whatever musical ambitions they have. Furthermore, bluegrass outfits seriously covering Pavement is my definition of progressive in music. Additionally, this is the only example (to my knowledge) of Nickel Creek recording with an electric guitar and it works completely to add just enough dirt to the instrumentation to remain true to Pavement’s original sound world.
Finally we arrive at number one. Why did I choose a Britney Spears cover as my number one? Two words, shock value. I, like everyone else on the planet, only ever heard of Yael Naim because Apple picked up her insanely catchy song New Soul and featured it in one of their commercials. I was not adequately prepared for this to be part of that album, and was more than pleasantly surprised to find that I really enjoyed it. Moreover, this is the cover on this list which is most removed from its original in terms of instrumentation and interpretation. If you haven’t heard this before or have already decided that you hate it, go at it with a blank slate and see if you can love it for what it tries to be, and not what it is.
This should be my number one, but I don’t like the idea of calling it a cover; it seems somehow better than that. The Bad Plus is remarkable in their creativity and eagerness to explore all musics through the medium of jazz trio. The original is of course from Black Sabbath and their 1970 studio release Paranoid. What you are hearing at the opening of the track is pianist Ethan Iverson performing one hand on an intentionally out of tune upright piano before bombing the musical theme with his other hand on a standard grand piano. However, the most incredible moment happens after the drum break at 4:26. Here the chords are filled out in the major mode and the song takes an unexpected uplifting turn before ending on a murky low register chord pile. It’s really a spectacular recording and it typifies the grace and ingenuity of The Bad Plus. If you don’t already know them, you are missing out.
As always, we love reader feedback and would like to know what you think and what your top five is as well. Hit us up on the response option and let’s keep the conversation going.
-words by Dave