Covers Corner: “Royals” by Bruce Springsteen

I have Lorde’s seminal album Pure Heroine on my list for a Throwback Thursday retrospective. In the meantime, I wanted to share a fun cover of her most famous song. The Boss did his own version a few years ago, and there’s lots to unpack.

At first glance, Springsteen doesn’t seem to pair that well with Lorde. Many of his songs are blue collar in nature; see Born in the U.S.A. or Thunder Road. Meanwhile, Lorde’s aesthetic is a slightly darker side of pop. Give the cover another listen, though, and The Boss is a better fit for a cover than you might assume. “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh…/And I’m not proud of my address/In a torn-up town, no postcode envy.” Doesn’t that sound like an echo of “Born to Run”? “In the day, we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream/At night, we ride through mansions of glory/In suicide machines.” Let’s go back to Lorde: “We count our dollars on the train to the party.” Springsteen peoples his albums with “tramps like us” and shell-shocked veterans; in “Royals,” Lorde is also looking in from the outside.

Vocally, Springsteen is also a good match. Lorde stands out from her teen idol peers because her voice is so much lower. The Boss’s voice more grizzled now than when Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. came out, carries the cover without sounding strained or awkward.

I also like hearing Springsteen say “You can call me King B.” In the audio, there are a few laughs in the audience at the line. He’s completely unselfconscious, and the vibe extends to the casual, even country-esque vibes that his cover has. (That harmonica alone!)

In terms of comparing cover to original, I’ll definitely go for Lorde’s version. But again, as with so many of my “Covers Corner” posts, I love seeing what other artists bring to the table when they try their hand at recording something completely different. And in this case, it’s a rock’n’roll institution singing a teenage pop song.

It has to be heard to be believed:

And here’s Lorde’s original, just in case you haven’t heard it in awhile:

Covers Corner: “The Scientist” by Willie Nelson

Before Coldplay collaborated with the likes of Rihanna, The Chainsmokers, and, most recently, BTS, they were best known for coffee shop ballads that veered into the atmospheric (see: “Viva la Vida”). Songs such as “Yellow,” “Clocks,” “Green Eyes,” and “Fix You” got them noticed. “The Scientist” is another early hit; if I’m being honest, it’s actually my favorite Coldplay song.

“The Scientist” is just so moving. It describes the inability of logic and reason to describe why a relationship might be falling apart. “Questions of science/Science and progress/Do not speak as loud as my heart.” Chris Martin sings feelingly here, especially when he pleads, “Oh, take me back to the start.” You wish for that moment to go back to the good. The song itself is rather spare. It focuses on piano, with eventual soft guitar and drums. Oof.

Willie Nelson’s take on this song is probably one of its better-known covers. His version has twangy guitar rather than piano, and his distinctive, gravelly, grownup-cowboy voice makes the song more mature. Here, the song feels grounded; perhaps that’s because it’s slower. When he sings, “Nobody said it was easy,” you get the sense that he’s speaking from a great deal of experience. Indeed, at the lyric, “I was just guessing/At numbers and figures/Pulling the puzzles apart,” there’s a different level of introspection there than in the Coldplay version. And there’s comfort there, too.

I have to say, I like the Willie Nelson version better, probably for those reasons. The lyrics themselves are lovely, and he gives them a nice extra weight.

Unfortunately, his cover isn’t available on Spotify, so I’ll post the YouTube link instead.

Covers Corner: “Mrs. Robinson” by The Lemonheads

I’ve had “Mrs. Robinson” (the Simon & Garfunkel version) stuck in my head lately, so I thought it would be fun to talk about a unique cover, which came to us courtesy of The Lemonheads in 1992.

We all know the jangly, almost thoughtful ’60s folk sound that Simon & Garfunkel were known for. “Mrs. Robinson” tells the story of the titular woman, who seems to be visiting an institution: “Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home.” Their voices are light and turn almost sneaky on the line “Put it in the pantry with your cupcakes.” (I actually prefer the soundtrack version, where the guitar is front and center. It even features a hint of the Bo Diddley beat, which is one of my favorite beats ever.) Anyway, it’s nearly the definition of groovy: settle into that strumming guitar and try not to shimmy.

Meanwhile, The Lemonheads speed things up. The main beat of the song is not hidden, exactly, but it provides the core for everything else. You can just hear it as the bass line. Evan Dando has the classic ’90s male singer voice: curved somehow, it finds its roots in punk and foreshadows the likes of Blink-182. I like this cover because they’re younger than Simon & Garfunkel. You can almost believe that they’re singing from the perspective of someone who is interested in a Mrs. Robinson, rather than the perspective of a peer with “sympathetic eyes.” The line “Put it in the pantry with your cupcakes” even sounds flirty in this version. Towards the end of the song, the guitar turns crunchy before the fadeout. There’s no lightness here; it’s solid.

In terms of cover vs. original preference, I like the Lemonheads’ version because it’s fun and youthful, but it’s hard to compare something to such an iconic song. So in this case I’m leaning more towards Simon & Garfunkel. What about you?

Covers Corner: “Nothing Else Matters” by Phoebe Bridgers

Rock icons Metallica are rereleasing The Black Album, a pioneering work that refined their sound with such songs as “Enter Sandman” and “Nothing Else Matters.” We’re getting another treat along with the rerelease: it’s called The Metallica Blacklist and it’s a behemoth of a covers album. Over 50 artists are reinterpreting their favorite Metallica tracks from The Black Album. One such cover is “Nothing Else Matters” by Phoebe Bridgers, which came out a few days ago.

The cover starts with delicate piano and a shuffling noise of some sort in the background. The piano sounds admittedly twee in the beginning, but quickly turns sinister. Bridgers sings very close to the microphone. Her voice has that signature slight tremble to it, which I think works well for the cover. The Metallica version is full of heavy metal confidence; here Bridgers sounds like she’s trying to insist that “nothing else matters” but doesn’t seem to be quite sure if it does. I like both interpretations.

At the chorus, Bridgers adds another layer of her own voice. That extra padding helps the song turn lush – soft, even, especially with the continuing piano. When we hit the bridge, her voice gets higher and we hear strings enter the cover for the first time. It’s eerie, but it works. Then the song breaks open and there’s an unsteady hiphop-esque beat underneath the whole thing. I didn’t like that part as much; it felt too heavy for Bridgers’s voice.

Overall, it’s a unique cover, especially since Metallica is a male band and Bridgers is a female indie solo artist. What do you think?

Covers Corner: “Irreplaceable” by Sleigh Bells

I’m going to open this post by acknowledging that yes, Beyoncé is really hard to replicate. She’s got her own distinct sound, she’s a titan of the industry, and when Lemonade dropped, none of us were ever the same. So with all that said, let’s discuss how a noise pop duo took on one of her biggest hits.

Sleigh Bells is probably best known for “Rill Rill,” which I’ll write about in more depth for a later Throwback Thursday. It established their sound as amp-heavy and electric. Lead singer Alexis Krauss has a delicate voice that often gets lost in the mix. With their cover of “Irreplaceable,” it’s brought out to shine. And indeed, here it almost seems to float. Derek Miller has traded his electric guitar for an acoustic one, which allows Krauss’s vocals to slide smoothly, front and center. Neat little finger snaps provide the backing beat. It’s a subtle touch that supports the strumming guitar in a nice way.

Krauss doesn’t attempt any vocal runs; she seems aware that that’s Beyoncé’s purview. Instead, she and Miller are exploring their own interpretation of the song. In their hands, it becomes softer, coffeehouse-esque. That’s surprising for fans of, say, “Infinity Guitars” or “Crown on the Ground,” two other big songs from their debut Treats, where “Rill Rill” also appears. I think it’s fun when bands explore something new, both in terms of a cover and in terms of what they can do sonically. When the two come together, it’s particularly refreshing.

Have a listen:

Covers Corner: “With God On Our Side” by Bon Iver

Back in the ’60s, Bob Dylan was a member of the counterculture, leaning more on the political protest side than the hippie. You can hear that in one of his most famous songs, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” which describes how the national mood is starting to shift. Today’s Covers Corner provides another example of the exhaustion and anger people were feeling during that decade. “With God On Our Side” is a long ballad about the way America has justified violence.

Bon Iver covered the song at a concert in 2011. The group slows the tempo way down and adds strings and saxophone. Justin Vernon is perhaps uniquely suited to sing part of the song: he, too, comes from the country called the Midwest. Bon Iver’s version takes out the references to World War II and the Cold War. Yet he still includes the lyrics referring to our weapons of “chemical dust.” It’s chilling; you realize that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I have to say – and at the risk of incurring internet backlash – when it comes to this Covers Corner, I like the Bon Iver version better. Okay, I know that Bob Dylan is, of course, iconic. His gravelly talk-singing has been around for decades, and people will be collecting vinyl pressings of Highway 61 Revisited for decades to come. The fact that Bon Iver performed a cover when he was still relatively on the come-up shows just how much of an institution Bob Dylan really is. Yet Bon Iver’s slowed version makes the song feel more expansive. It’s not as much of a long list of events. Instead, I feel like you settle into each occurrence that the song describes and are forced to sit with it for awhile.

I am loathe to post low-quality concert footage on my blog, but unfortunately the Bon Iver version isn’t available in other formats.

Covers Corner: “Wonderful Everyday” by Chance the Rapper

Admittedly, this is an unusual choice for my Covers Corner feature because it slides into remix territory more than cover, but I’ve been listening to it a lot lately and wanted to share.

“Wonderful Everyday” is a cover of the theme song to the cartoon Arthur, which is called “Believe in Yourself.” The original was performed by Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers. The group’s reggae sound makes the theme song much more unique than other kid’s show tunes; it’s not bright and bouncy, but slow and meaningful. Fitting for a show that’s all about friendship and, well, believing in yourself as you grow up.

Chance the Rapper’s cover is richly textured. You’ll find piano and humming playing together as the song begins. He’s backed by his collaborative group The Social Experiment. Keep an ear out for Jessie Ware (!) as she softly sings, “It could be so wonderful.” Goosebumps right there. Indeed, the whole cover makes you believe that it really could be wonderful every day. When I listen to the song, I feel like there’s almost a double meaning at work. It could be wonderful, and it already is. The chorus is just so joyful, too. That’s when Chance stops remixing and returns to the lyrics of the original. He says “Hey!”, and the kid in me wants to join in on the response: “What a wonderful kind of day.”

Like the original song says, “It’s a simple message/And it comes from the heart.” Believing in yourself and listening to other people matters: “Everybody that you meet/Has an original point of view.” That’s something that we so often forget. Chance the Rapper revisiting a childhood classic invites us to revisit that message, too. Perhaps it’s more relevant now than ever.

Listen below, but fair warning: you might tear up. I know I do.

Covers Corner: “Surfin’ USA” by The Jesus and Mary Chain

It’s that time of year again! Warmer weather has arrived, and with it, my summertime songs. We return to my Covers Corner feature with the version of “Surfin’ USA” that The Jesus and Mary Chain did back in 1987.

It’s classic Mary Chain, with blistering guitar and Jim Reid’s rough voice. The combo is an excellent continuation of the sound they established with their debut Psychocandy: pop music that’s layered thickly with a fuzz of feedback echoing the Kinks. Their version also sets up an intriguing contrast. A band from Scotland is singing about “Californ-i-a” and “waxing down our surfboards/can’t wait ’till June.” It’s not funny, exactly, but I love it just the same. The cover has a rebellious vibe. When Jim Reid sings, “tell the teacher we’re surfin’,” I picture a group of kids skipping class to head to the beach.

Meanwhile, the Beach Boys’ version is squeaky-clean a capella. You immediately want to jump on a surfboard yourself, or at least hang out on the sand with a radio playing. The best part, in my opinion, is towards the end with the high, ever-so-slightly nasal “yeah, everybody’s gone surfin‘” onto the fadeout. It’s youthful and sweet. The kids in this song aren’t skipping class; they’re waiting until the weekend or until the summer surf season begins.

Spend some time in the sun by listening below:

Covers Corner: “Champagne Kisses” by Conchita Wurst

Note on pronouns used in this post: Conchita is the drag persona of Thomas Neuwirth. He uses she/her pronouns when referring to Conchita and he/him pronouns to refer to himself.

Conchita Wurst was the winner of the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest and became known for her distinctive flowy hair and equally luscious beard. Her song “Rise Like a Phoenix” became an anthem for outcasts everywhere. The song is sweeping, dramatic, and soulful, just like its themes. Conchita has a surprisingly delicate voice in the midst of the drama.

That lightness is well-suited to her cover of Jessie Ware’s “Champagne Kisses.” The song has a steadier, snappier electronic beat than the original, layered over with an intriguing little twang. Conchita’s voice is deeper than Jessie Ware’s, but still soft, and she carries the chorus beautifully. I love the bridge: the beat here is sweet and bubbly. It’s a good replacement for the heights that Jessie Ware’s voice reaches.

As tends to happen with covers, the new vocal tone can change the meaning. I think that Conchita’s deeper voice makes her cover sound more wistful and reflective, as if the relationship is happening in the (recent?) past. Jessie Ware’s version always seemed much more head-over-heels to me. Then again, I was pretty head-over-heels when I first heard her version, so maybe I’m biased. Still: the run-up to the end where Jessie Ware sings oooooooo and all the synths are happening at once just crashes over you in the best way.

I can’t really say which version I like better in this instance. I think it depends what kind of mood you’re in.

Covers Corner: “On the Wall” by Gospel Gossip

If you’ve spent any length of time on this blog, you know that my favorite band is The Jesus and Mary Chain. I’ve been to three of their concerts and have most of the songs on Darklands memorized. Their debut, Psychocandy, set the tone, but it’s Darklands that’s my favorite of their albums.

Today we’re talking about a cover of a song from that album, “On the Wall.” “Just Like Honey” is the Chain’s best-known song and consequently the most covered, so this one is a unique find. The cover is by Gospel Gossip, a band from Minneapolis that, as far as I can tell, hasn’t released anything new since 2014. Their sound is fitting for a Jesus and Mary Chain cover: loud and somewhat dissonant shoegaze that holds a kernel of pop in the mix.

The Mary Chain version of “On the Wall” is actually a departure from their usual sound: it’s quick and layered with a drum machine. (Darklands experiments with drum machines a lot.) The typically angsty tone of Jim Reid’s voice, combined with their typically angsty lyrics, gets lost in the almost perky sound. The guitar here is lovely, but it’s lighter, smoother, and overall more positive than the slower and more meditative atmosphere of the rest of Darklands: see “Deep One Perfect Morning.”

In contrast, the Gospel Gossip version sounds almost more like a Mary Chain song than the original version does. It is much slower and more atmospheric, with a trembling guitar line under the soft vocals. That makes the lyrics stand out even more. I find the contrast between the female singer and the line “These make me taste/Like a man” interesting. The drum line here doesn’t come from a machine. It feels almost like a heartbeat. At the end of the song, with the line “I’m like a clock,” the drumbeat starts to sound like a clock ticking. It’s an excellent, subtle touch. Then it builds into “I’m like a clock on the wall” and the crescendo is such an excellent payoff. Listen below: