In the pantheon of meaningless expressions, “Lightning never strikes the same place twice” holds a fairly prominent position. But figurative evidence exists quite to the contrary – especially if one is speaking culturally. To wit, Siouxsie & the Banshees besting The Beatles with their dazzling cover of “Dear Prudence”; or Bauhaus out Ziggy-ing David Bowie by going full metal on “Ziggy Stardust.” We could go on.
Currently, Los Angeles singer-songwriter Greg Laswell is having a good go at eviscerating said expression, with his edifyingly titled new album Covers II, released today. For it, he applies his dark romanticism to the likes of Placebo’s “Without You I’m Nothing,” Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again,” and Catherine Wheel’s “Crank,” subduing each to reveal an even deeper level of introspection and confession. But he also imbues The Verve’s “Lucky Man” with a chill-inducing resplendence, and renders the Psychedelic Furs classic “Love My Way” a pensive, contemplative ballad.
With such keen understanding of the art of the remake, we asked Laswell to enlighten us as to what he believes are the truly most outstanding cover versions of the modern era (meaning, we’ll leave out Stravinsky covering Mahler, and other such things). His choices have the commonality of being particularly soul-searching works in original form, reimagined by those who know rather a lot about the act of searching the soul.
Tori Amos: “Losing My Religion” (originally by R.E.M.)
Tori Amos approaches all of her covers in a very intense and vulnerable way. She has the ability to completely make them her own and seemingly has no fear while doing so, tackling songs far outside her genre (Slayer, Eminem, and Nirvana to name a few). One of my favorites was her rendition of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” And while Tori’s signature is easily heard within the first few seconds of her Bosendorfer piano phrasing, it’s how she holds the original melody prisoner that allows her to punctuate certain parts when she sees fit. For me, the result pulls me into a heavier side of the lyrics of a song that I’ve heard hundreds of times before. I keep threatening to cover one of her songs. Maybe I will someday.
Johnny Cash: “Hurt” (originally by Nine Inch Nails)
I almost don’t even want to talk about it, but I will try… I was always aware of Johnny Cash growing up, but it wasn’t until I heard this cover some 16 years ago that I became a true fan. It’s been said countless times of this song that it acts as an introspective, heartfelt goodbye to his career and life. And what a pure and resolved goodbye it was. He passed six months after its release. I read somewhere that Trent Reznor was initially concerned about the cover – thinking it might be too much of a gimmick. And while I am a huge fan of of his, he couldn’t have been more wrong.
Peter Gabriel: “Book of Love” (originally by Magnetic Fields)
I first heard this song in some random Richard Gere movie in the mid-2000s and I was instantly taken. It’s one of the few on this list that I wasn’t aware of the original; I wouldn’t discover Magnetic Fields (and Stephen Merritt) until years later. The string arrangement is sensitively understated and beautiful. One of my favorite things that Gabriel does with his singing is how and when he decides to go up an octave vocally (in this song, it’s about 40 seconds in). He then goes back down for the final verse, allowing the song to never truly get away from us. In a list of my favorite covers, this one is way up there.
The Sundays: “Wild Horses” (originally by The Rolling Stones)
I was unaware that this was a cover, which is embarrassing as the the original was by The Rolling Stones (and I’m a musician); but I was a late bloomer in some ways. A good friend in college introduced me to The Sundays and their record Blind occupied a year of my life and ended with one of my favorite [cover] songs of all time, “Wild Horses.” There are moments when a singer’s natural delivery and timbre lines up so perfectly with a melody that it becomes its own thing altogether. That moment happens the very instant Harriet Wheeler cries out ‘wild horses’ in the chorus. It’s a timeless moment in a beautifully (and perfectly) done cover.
Sinead O’Connor: “Nothing Compares To You” (originally by Prince)
If this was a list of best music videos, it would make that cut as well. I remember looking into the face of Sinead singing directly to whom it was intended, it almost made me feel like I wasn’t supposed to be there. The song itself does the same thing. The production has stuck with me all these years and influenced my own approach the older I have gotten…simple tape-machine string quartet perfectly married with a great drum sound/beat and a perfect vocal. Also, who covers a Prince song and makes it famous? (Answer: Sinead.)