Conventional wisdom holds that the original is usually better, and except for a few instances – The Godfather Pt. II, The Empire Strikes Back – going back for seconds is a bad choice. But those are movies, where the goal is continuation, not mimicry.
So what about music? Are there cover songs that actually improve on the originals? Is Rage Against the Machine’s take on “Maggie’s Farm” better or more powerful than the way Bob Dylan sang it forty years ago? As an artist, do you stay faithful to the model or do you try to make it your own? What makes you want to play a song that’s already been played?
The artists who contribute to This Bird Has Flown: A 40th Anniversary Tribute to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, clearly don’t have any answers. Well, maybe they can answer the last one: The songs they choose to cover – the entirety of Rubber Soul in its original order – are so memorable that their new versions have an immediate audience. Etched into the collective consciousness, almost all Beatles songs are above reproach. Who will say “In My Life” isn’t a great song, one of the best ever written? So, learn the chords, stay true to the recorded version, and most casual listeners will praise it.
Oh, if it were that easy. The missteps on This Bird Has Flown are so numerous, so egregious, that it’s hard to target any one in particular. But let’s try. First off, the Fiery Furnaces’ take on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” is so appalling it almost – almost – needs to be heard to be hated. Nellie McKay takes “If I Needed Someone” to some anonymous Caribbean island, where she beats it do death with wooden planks. Ted Leo’s slinky dub cover of “I’m Looking Through You” only makes me want to hear the Wallflowers’ version off the soundtrack to I Am Sam, which only wants to make me listen to the Beatles. It’s a vicious cycle. Why put myself through that pain?
A few bands do actually get it: Low does a predictably stripped version of “Nowhere Man,” and Mindy Smith’s “The Word,” Yonder Mountain String Band’s “Think for Yourself” and Rhett Miller’s “Girl” retain some of the simple excitement and emotion John and Paul had all those years ago. But do we need a reggae take on “Michelle” from Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals? Do we need a massacred “What Goes On” from Sufjan Stevens? These pallid takes on classic tracks pay the most insincere form of flattery. Instead of making you want to hear the original, they make you not want to listen to music at all.
Because the Beatles are so universally loved, or at the very least unanimously respected, the bad covers here are more than that. They’re personal attacks on those who love Rubber Soul. And who needs that?
Razor and Tie Records Web site