Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Cover Girls: 5 Remakes Everyone Should Know (But You Probably Don't)

In pop music, there are two ways to tackle a cover: Re-make or re-model, to borrow the title of my favorite song by Roxy Music, a non-remake (and non-remodel) that was the opening track on the band's first album.

To simply re-make is to offer a relatively faithful rendition that underscores the timelessness of a classic. Most of the cover girls below opted for this approach and reaped creative rewards for it, which they passed along to us, the listeners. Add these to previously covered (on this very blog) covers by Maria McKeeBarbra StreisandSinead O'ConnorVanessa Williams and Mayssa Karaa, whose Arabic cover of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" provided the soundtrack for one of American Hustle's best scenes, and you've got a covers mix tape that reinforces the power of straightforward reinterpretation (give or take a change of language).

To re-model, is more or less to reinvent the wheel. That is, it's to turn an old song into a brand new one. This is what Marvin Gaye did to The Beatles "Yesterday, and what Al Green did to Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times," and Bee Gee's "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," which I heard last night for the first time in ages during my favorite part of the 1999 Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant romantic comedy Notting Hill (when Grant is walking through the seasons).

That's how Aretha Franklin claimed songs by Otis Redding ("Respect"), Simon and Garfunkel ("Bridge Over Troubled Water"), Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector ("Spanish Harlem"), and Burt Bacharach and Hal David ("I Say a Little Prayer"), all of which were hits before she got to them, as her own.

Regardless of which route is chosen, just because you didn't write it or record it first doesn't mean you can't sing the hell out of it.

Cover Girl: Chrissie Hynde (with Moodswings)
Song: "State of Independence" (retitled "Spritiual High [State of Independence] Pt. II, for Moodswings' Moodfood, 1992)
Original: Jon and Vangelis (Yes's Jon Anderson and the Chariots of Fire composer, 1981)

Of all the excellent covers of songs made famous by Donna Summer (which would include Marc Almond and Jimmy Sommerville's "I Feel Love," Heart's "The Woman in Me," and this rendition of her 1982 single), this is the only one that ever became 100 percent definitive for me. Leave it to Chrissie Hynde, who managed the same feat with The Kinks' "Stop Your Sobbing," Pretenders 1979 debut single.

Cover Girl: Pebbles
Song: "I Can't Help It" (from Straight from the Heart, 1995)
Original: Michael Jackson (1979)

If you know Pebbles only for her two-album heyday and that mess with TLC, you missed out. Her flop final pop album was a lost gem that contained three tracks that rank right up there with "Girlfriend" and "Giving You the Benefit": the originals "Happy" and "Soul Replacement" and her unexpected cover of a song that Stevie Wonder co-wrote for the future self-proclaimed King of Pop's breakthrough solo album, Off the Wall.

Cover Girl: Miki Howard
Song: This Bitter Earth (from Femme Fatale, 1992)
Original: Dinah Washington (1960)

It's too bad that no one thought to do with Miki Howard and Dinah Washington what 1972's Lady Sings the Blues had done for Diana Ross and Billie Holiday 20 years earlier. (Howard also offered a cover of "Good Morning Heartache" on Femme Fatale that was so haunted by the ghost of Lady Day, it made Diana Ross's Lady remake irrelevant in my music collection.)

Cover Girl: Lisa Stansfield 
Song: "When Love Breaks Down" (from The Moment, 2004)
Original: Prefab Sprout (1984)

The greatest blue-eyed soulstress of the last 25 years (sorry, Adele) remade one of my favorite British bands of the '80s/'90s for her sixth album. (Her seventh, Seven, was released last month.) Prefab Sprout has always exuded a certain asexual innocence, and Stansfield brought to one of their better-known songs an earthy sensuality that didn't cancel out the forlorn essence of the original. That new verse that Prefab frontman Paddy McAloon wrote specifically for Stansfield's cover certainly didn't go to waste. (Honorable mention: Kylie Minogue's torchy reading of Prefab Sprout's 1992 single "If You Don't Love Me.")

Cover Girl: Ann Wilson
Song: "Immigrant Song" (from Hope & Glory, 2007)
Original: Led Zeppelin (1970)

I probably considered it near-sacrilege to redo Led Zeppelin until I heard track 5 from the overlooked solo debut from Ann Wilson, the frontwoman for 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Heart. If anyone could have pulled it off, I should have known it would be her.

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