Covered: “Somebody’s Baby”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original.  If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before. 

I go out with friends a couple of times a week for trivia nights at different bars, which is really a great way to at least give the impression that you’re sociable.  At the very least, it allows me to skip a night of cooking, and with drinks on special, I’d be stupid not to go.  One of the establishments we frequent has a good trivia game itself, but has one annoying problem: they use the same iTunes playlist each week.  It’s not as if the songs bear any relation to the various categories; it’s just a random mix of the same old hits each week.  And every week I curse the fact that I have to break my pledge to never listen to another Sublime song, because I’ve already met my lifetime quota.

One of the songs feature in this playlist is the Jackson Browne classic “Somebody’s Baby”, his hit song from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  Here’s a refresher for those that desire it:

There’s a reason you know and love this song, and it’s not just because you have fond memories of Phoebe Cates.  The music itself is instantly familiar because it consists of a classic chord progression, a variation of the I-V-vi-IV.  For those interested in pseudo-music theory nerdspeak, this is the root (I) chord with its most common partners, the dominant (V) and subdominant (IV), with the relative minor (vi) thrown in for good measure.  It’s the backbone of a lot of pop songs and especially common in punk rock, as it allows for subtle rhythmic tricks and multiple combinations while still sounding “correct” (something that this song does particularly well).  It also has a memorable, hooky melody with great leads from the guitar and keys that complement both the chords and the melody.  The lyrics also hold their own, with a unique spin on the “shy guy yearns for an unrequited love” trope, with an excellent display of rationalization for not going for it (because, really, do you believe that the narrator is actually going to follow through and “talk to her tonight” at the end of the song?).

While listening to the Jackson Browne for the nth week in a row, I brought up how much I loved the Phantom Planet version of the song.  If you’re unfamiliar with the cover and the link above is your first exposure, note that it was one of several 80’s covers done by bands from the mid-00’s featured on the Not Another Teen Movie soundtrack*.  I’d spend some time illustrating why the movie that is a better satire of terrible teen films than you would expect, but you’re not here for my film criticism, so we’ll stick with the original plan and analyze the cover.

There are several tweaks that Phantom Planet made that make the cover an improvement on the classic original.  First, the increased tempo fits the youthful vibe of the song perfectly, so much so that when the original is heard back-to-back, it seems to drag in comparison.  It’s not a drastic change, like a goofy late-90’s pop-punk cover, but it’s enough that it makes a significant difference.  Also, by replacing the backing keyboard with another guitar makes the rhythm and lead parts mesh even better, and actually makes it sound even more like a pop song.  Not only that, but I have a personal preference for the tone of the guitars, but that may be merely a reflection of my predilection towards 90’s production touches versus those that recall the 80’s.  I’d doubt that the subtle change to the chord progression in the first phrase of each verse, switching from the V-I of the original to the I-V-I of the cover, had much of an influence, though the fact that the cover is played and sung a half-step above the original probably did.  This tweak gives the cover version an even sunnier appeal, which in my mind emphasizes the narrative of the lyrics.

It’s this combination that leads me to continually hit “repeat” when listening to the Phantom Planet version, while I only pleasantly nod my head when the Jackson Brown original makes its weekly appearance at trivia.  Though if they want to meet me halfway and play the Yo La Tengo version next week, I’ll gladly accept.

*It’s a pretty forgettable soundtrack, but I do admit to liking System of a Down’s version of “The Metro” and Goldfinger’s version of “99 Red Balloons”.


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