Underneath the covers

June 10, 2007


From Aretha Franklin's reading of Otis Redding's "Respect" to the recent romp through Labelle's "Lady Marmalade" by Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya and Pink, some of the most successful songs in the history of popular music have been covers of tunes originally written or performed by other artists.

What makes a great cover? Well, it has to have been a strong song in the first place, even if it was overlooked upon its initial release. But just as important, the artist remaking the tune has to bring something new to the table -- if not a dramatically different musical interpretation, then at least a passion that equals or exceeds that of the original performer. And because some of these traits are lacking on many of the tracks included on two new covers albums from punk-era greats Bryan Ferry and Patti Smith, as well as on the selections on a recent tribute to Joni Mitchell, these discs are ultimately a disappointment.

Throughout his solo career, the sometime leader of Roxy Music has been one of rock's best interpretative artists, often citing Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett as his role models in that regard. Ferry already has released several albums entirely devoted to other artists' songs, including the superior "These Foolish Things" (1973) and "Taxi" (1993), and some of his covers have bettered the originals, with his take on John Lennon's "Jealous Guy" topping an impressive list. He's successfully done Bob Dylan before, too, with "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" in '73 and two Dylan covers ("It's All Over Now Baby Blue" and "Don't Think Twice It's All Right") on 2002's "Frantic," but "Dylanesque" focuses exclusively on the singing bard of Hibbing, Minn. -- with surprisingly lackluster results.

If you discount his always distinctive postmodern lounge lizard vocals, most of Ferry's readings of Dylan's songs are disappointingly straight, with little hint of Roxy Music's wild musical pastiches, though Brian Eno does drop by to electronically tweak a few tracks, Robin Trower predictably channels Jimi Hendrix on "All Along the Watchtower" and "The Times They Are a-Changin' " is given an odd dance groove that it didn't need (and which doesn't work).

It's possible that Ferry was trying to keep the focus on his singing, and the pleasures here are all in his subtle rephrasings of the lyrics and slippery caresses of those familiar minimalist melodies. But despite his trademark suavity and self-assurance, Ferry seems to be overly awed by the originals, and aside from a spirited version of "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," he never succeeds in making any of Dylan's songs his own.

A faker's dozen
Like Ferry, Smith is no slouch when it comes to covering other artists: Her version of "Gloria" by Van Morrison's original band Them is simply sublime, and several other covers -- "Land of a Thousand Dances" (originally by Wilson Pickett, but famously reworked after that by Cannibal and the Headhunters), "So You Want to Be (A Rock and Roll Star)" by the Byrds and "Wicked Messenger" by Dylan -- have been nearly as strong. Yet the dozen covers on "Twelve" are a wildly mixed batch, with a few unlikely hits -- the Allman Brothers' "Midnight Rider," Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise," George Harrison's "Within You Without You" -- but even more dismal misses.

Remaking Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in the style of a back-porch acoustic hootenanny was an audacious idea that could have worked, especially since New York folk legend Peter Stampfel and Smith's old friend, playwright Sam Shepard, stopped by to contribute. Unfortunately, the fussy banjo picking and Patti's tacked-on poetic rhapsodizing sink the track.

Smith clearly loves Neil Young's "Helpless," and if she doesn't bring anything new to it, she doesn't soil it, either. Other songs were doomed from the start, though, and it's doubtful whether anything could have saved Smith's readings of "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" by Tears for Fears (a lousy choice, plain and simple) or "Gimme Shelter," "White Rabbit" and "Soul Kitchen" (all tired, overly predictable choices long since ruined by classic-rock radio and Baby Boomer nostalgia).

She deserved better
Finally, we have "A Tribute to Joni Mitchell," an inspired idea -- Mitchell is chronically underrated as a songwriter -- but a difficult one to pull off (given our heroine's complicated and very personal lyrics and complex melodies). Part of the blame for the failure here is due to Nonesuch, which tapped too many safe-choice mainstream artists (among them Elvis Costello, Cassandra Wilson, Sarah McLachlan and James Taylor, all of whom show very little imagination) while avoiding much more adventurous acts on its own roster (where are Wilco, Laurie Anderson or David Byrne?). And there's just no forgiving the label for including much less opening the disc with the version of "Free Man in Paris" by indie hype Sufjan Stevens.

Yes, a few tracks work: Bjork does a typically idiosyncratic version of "The Boho Dance"; South American great Caetano Veloso offers a brilliant take on "Dreamland"; similarly strong-willed women Annie Lennox and k.d. lang hold their own on covers of "Ladies of the Canyon" and "Help Me." Yet as strong as these contributions are, they don't carry the disc, and you can't help but think that Mitchell, much less the listeners, deserved much better.


Bryan Ferry, "Dylanesque (Virgin) 2 stars

Patti Smith, "Twelve" (Columbia) 2 and a half stars

Various artists, "A Tribute to Joni Mitchell" (Nonesuch) 2 stars