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The Conundrum of Crushing Cover Songs

Updated: Apr 6, 2022

The execution of a good cover song is really the result of a good performance, often one that brings a new light to a song as a result from the musician putting their own voice to it. It’s when the artist is able to make the song seem completely different, maybe by playing it in a different key, a different rhythm or even just by adding their own unique style that can turn a song upside down and give it an entirely new meaning (think Cobain doing the Unplugged Bowie version of “The Man Who Sold The World). While no musician really holds their hat on their cover resume, all musicians cover songs and they can often be reflective of their influences, tastes or even songs they played coming up when they were making their name. It’s really through covering songs that many musicians end up finding the own style, their own voice and it can be seen from the Beatles on through today. After the Lennon-McCartney song writing duo basically made writing your own songs the expectation rather than the exception, it was tough to make it big by playing old standards but it can often be seen, even with bands as big as Led Zeppelin and Van Halen, that you can make a name for yourself playing a cover as long as you rip the face off of it.

Enter Jeff Buckley, one of the most prolific voices of all time and a man who had the strange musical ability to take any song and turn it into a ballad. When I first heard his EP Live at Sin-é, an early recording of his from a Greenwich Village club, I had no choice but to become a fan just based off the fact that he covered Edith Piaf, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, all multiple times and left me wondering if I’d ever want to hear the originals again. The one man band approach has never really been as well carried out as Buckley was able to do and it’s because he has such a strong voice that he could basically go a cappella for any song or hold a note so long that it’s amazing that he wasn’t gasping for air, as he did in The Smith’s “I Know It’s Over”. It was not even until several months of Buckley fan-ship that a friend finally pointed out to me that Jeff Buckley didn’t just do covers, that he had original songs too but I don’t think I was necessarily off in my notion, considering he is most well-known for his Leonard Cohen cover of “Halleluiah”. That’s not to say that Buckley’s originals are not good because I think they have a similar ability to showcase Buckley’s abilities, to vocally take a song high-low and every place in between but there is still something about his covers that are so wonderful that those are the songs I get addicted to. Whether it be Sly Stone’s “Everyday People” with a slight tempo or a sad Dylan song like “Just Like A Woman” where he is able to phrase the song with such subtle savvy that I end up cherishing these songs not his originals.

These were feelings that were unique to Buckley’s music, until I discovered Phoebe Bridgers. She’d been on my radar for a little while, but with the release of her second studio album Punisher, she really made herself impossible to ignore. The album is really a cohesive, song-to-song, complete album that has even grown on me more and more as I have listened to it but what’s really made me into such a big fan of hers lately is listening to all the great fucking covers she’s done. It started when she did a performance with Alro Parks for BBC Radio 1 where she did theses stripped down versions of “Fake Plastic Trees” and her own song “Kyoto” that I started to get into full addiction mode and would basically put on these YouTube videos anywhere from three to seven times a day. I would even say that I prefer this version of “Kyoto” to the album version where it is turned into more of a complete song, picking up the tempo and filling it with not just her band, but a pocket piano that almost sounds like a flute. I also get why she did the album version that way because it makes it into a rock song which works, but I can’t help but love the stripped-down version more. As I started to dive into more of her live performances, it was fun to find videos of Nineties covers like “Torn” and “If It Makes You Happy” and her cover of “Teenage Dirtbag” might just be the best, as it ironically suits her sweet singing. It was when I discovered her love for Elliot Smith that I knew she had me, even though it’s tough to find anything but some shitty live videos. It would be a strange career decision but if Phoebe announced tomorrow that she would only be doing Elliot Smith covers for the rest of her life, I would be absolutely fine with it, but that would be just short of a tragedy. Her lyrics are truly one of her best skills, with the ability to casually mention such serious thing like her relationship with her father or if there’s a God, it gives her songs a dialogue like quality that always leaves you feeling like she’s being brutally honest with you. It’s almost something you can see Bridgers carrying on from Smith who had a similar quality and it’s no wonder why it works so well when she covers his songs.

It’s a unique discovery of these artist to me in that I do really like them more for their covers than their originals and that also makes it hard to show them to anyone else. It’s almost misleading to tout an artist to someone and then show them a cover, but it’s even worse when it’s a shitty YouTube video. The conundrum here is these cover songs are the songs that made me love both Buckley and Bridgers so I feel like they are the important ones, the songs I know them by. I guess I’m fine with this for Jeff Buckley, his legacy is set in stone, and his voice is already known for being one of the greatest of all time, but maybe Bridgers can take note from him and, as painful as it is for me to say, quit doing covers because her originals will learn to speak for themselves.

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