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THE PROMPT: Killer Covers
December 10, 2011
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It's been a good year for unlikely musical pairings. First there was Loutallica. And now Feist and Mastodon are covering each other's songs.

The unexpected pairing began when singer-songwriter Feist and heavy metal heads Mastodon were both invited to perform on 'Later with Jools Holland' this October. At the show, they exchanged riffs and stories, and discussed the possibility of playing each other's songs. In an interview with MTV Canada, Mastodon's Troy Sanders confirmed the partnership. The unlikely but intriguing split 7" will be released for Record Store Day in April 2012.

And they're not the only surprising musical pairing making the rounds. On the other end of the musical spectrum, Jack White's Third Man Records have created two singles featuring character actor John C. Reilly. Both tracks feature the Raconteur and ex-White Stripe on drums. The singles are duets: one with Lavender Diamond's Becky Stark (Ray Price's 'I'll Be There If You Ever Want Me'), and the other with Tom Brosseau (Delmore Brothers' 'Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar').

The cover song is one of the most enduring and enjoyable forms of musical collaboration. It can reveal things about a song that no one would have realized, and completely recontextualize a tune you thought you knew like the back of your hand. Here are a few of our favourites. We want to know some of yours: let us know your favourite covers in the comments below, or Tweet @strombo with the hashtag #KillerCover. We'll update this post with some of your suggestions next week. 

THE CLASSICS:

The Clash "I Fought the Law"
It was originally written by Sonny Curtis of the Crickets. It became popular in 1966 when The Bobby Fuller Four covered it. But The Clash's 1979 version, with Joe Strummer's intense vocal and Mick Jones's venomous guitar, recreated the tune as a socially aware punk anthem.

Jimi Hendrix "All Along the Watchtower"
It's hard to think of a cover song as successful as Hendrix's version of Bob Dylan's 1967 song. In a later interview, Dylan said Jimi "found things that other people wouldn't think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day."

The Honeydrippers "Sea of Love"
In the mid-eighties, Robert Plant released an album of covers of his favourite songs from the 1950's. To his surprise, this Phil Phillips ballad became a hit. It has also been covered by many others, from Tom Waits to Iggy Pop to an indie darling who we'll touch on later.

Patti Smith "Gloria"
Smith introduced herself to the world as a punk priestess by choosing a song recorded by Van Morrison a decade earlier, and almost completely reinventing it. She keeps the chorus, but changes the lyrics to reflect upon the moment.

The Rolling Stones "Love in Vain"
On 1969's 'Let It Bleed', Jagger and company reworked this blues classic. They intended the cover version to be a tribute to Robert Johnson.


NEW CONTENDERS:

Jeff Buckley "Hallelujah"
Leonard Cohen wrote a great lyric in 1983, but Buckley made it a great song 11 years later. Since Buckley, the tune has been covered by many other artists, including kd lang and Willie Nelson.

Caribou & Jasques Greene "Little By Little"
The first chapter of Radiohead's 'King of Limbs' remix series was a digital recreation of the track by Manitoba's 2008 Polaris Prize-Winner Daniel Snaith. The Caribou version is recognizably the same song, but it creates a whole new context for the tune.

Johnny Cash "Hurt"
A haunting rendition of Trent Reznor's 1994 song appeared toward the end of the Man in Black's career, and came across as a poignant moment of reflection on his long and sometimes difficult life. He was hesitant to cover the song at first, fearing that it would appear gimmicky. But as Reznor said himself, Cash made the song his own.

Ben Folds "Bitches Ain't S**t"
Both are bitter suburbanites and straight-up gangstas, so it's no surprise that Ben Folds covered Dr. Dre in 2005. During his set at the Glastonbury Festival, Folds claimed that the cover idea came from a friend who requested he play this song at her wedding.
WARNING: EXPLICIT LANGUAGE

Marvin Gaye "Yesterday"
The Prince of Soul's take on the Lennon/McCartney standard shatters the notion that their catalogue should be untouched. With a slower tempo and a twangy guitar, Gaye takes the song to a new place.

Gnarls Barkley "Gone Daddy Gone"
Originally recorded by the Violent Femmes, the odd couple of Cee-Lo Green and Danger Mouse performed their version at the legendary studios on an episode of 'Live at Abbey Road'. 

Gary Jules "Mad World"
From the 'Donnie Darko' soundtrack, this cover of 'Tears for Fears' is perfect for the dark themes explored in the movie. It definitely doesn't sound like an English new wave band in Jules' capable hands.

Israel Kamakawiwoʻole "Somewhere Over The Rainbow"
He may not have Judy Garland's vocal range, but the Hawaiian's cover has been featured in a seemingly endless list of movies, TV shows and commercials, including '50 First Dates'. It also served as the soundtrack to Dr. Greene's demise in ER. Who cares if most of the lyrics are wrong. 

Marilyn Manson "Sweet Dreams"
Manson is famous for twisting eighties ballads like 'Personal Jesus' or 'Tainted Love' into his own dark vision. This is the first time he used the trick, and it's still arguably his masterpiece. According to his autobiography, the idea to cover the song came during his first experimentation with LSD, when he hallucinated a "slower, meaner" version of the song sung in his voice.

Cat Power "Sea of Love"
The Honeydrippers rendition is one good approach to this tune. But Charlyn Marshall's approach, with a simple ukulele strum and an aching vocal, is a true testament to Phil Phillips' songwriting.

Jill Sobule "Don't Let Us Get Sick"
Warren Zevon's hymn-like lines are adopted by Sobule as a posthumous tribute to Warren himself. It was featured on the memorial Zevon album, 'Enjoy Every Sandwich'.

Sonic Youth "Superstar"
The Youth take on this Leon Russell-penned song, originally by The Carpenters, with their trademark distorted guitars and no-wave attitude. It was later featured, alongside Cat Power's 'Sea of Love', on the 'Juno' soundtrack.

Allen Toussaint "Closer Walk With Thee"
A multi-instrumentalist from New Orleans takes on a traditional gospel hymn. Perfection ensues.


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