Covered: “Have Love Will Travel”

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. 

As we’ve mentioned before, the big news next week is the release of the latest album from The Black Keys, Turn Blue.  That means it’s a perfect opportunity to do one of our regular features for one of our favorite bands, so we’re going to give the Akron, Ohio duo the Covered treatment this week.

Much like their blues predecessors, The Black Keys have displayed a keen aptitude for covers over their career, so there were many options that we could have chosen for this feature.  Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney have shown that they’ve drawn inspiration from a number of sources, from the Beatles’ “She Said She Said” on their debut, to the Kinks’ “Act Nice and Gentle” from Rubber Factory, to blues legend Junior Kimbrough, for whom they did an entire EP of covers, Chulahoma.  We were tempted to showcase their excellent version of Jerry Butler’s classic “Never Gonna Give You Up”, but decided to highlight the earlier “classic” style of the band, instead of their more recent turn to 70’s R&B and classic rock.

The true mark of the brilliance of The Black Keys is how seamlessly their covers fit within their albums.  There is never any indication or signal from the band that “THIS IS A COVER”; all songs bear the same signature aesthetic of that trademark Black Keys “sound”, and they never disrupt the flow of the album.  In other words, as one listens through each of their albums, the novice listener would probably be unable to pick out which songs are the originals and which ones are the covers.  Perhaps this is a function of the basic setup of the band–drums and guitar, with the latter using a fairly consistent tone.  The simple structure (balancing between only three elements (drums/vocals/guitars) and relying on the same instrumentation) helps the band maintain a consistent aesthetic.

This is especially true of “Have Love Will Travel”.  It wasn’t until years after my first listen to thickfreakness did I realize it was a cover, and that was only after checking out the album credits on Wikipedia.  It’s got the same great dirty, fuzzy guitar tone found throughout the album, and features several tasty leads and solos.  Dan gives an impassioned performance with the vocals, matching the intensity of the guitar, and the production style of making it sound as if it was recorded through a tin can enhances the retro feel of the song.  Pat does a great job of mixing between shuffle and a more basic rock beat, and his single-beat hits before the last line of each chorus really liven up the song.

The song has a long history, having been covered by several artists since its release in 1959.  The version that probably inspired The Black Keys was rendition done by The Sonics.  It’s simply a perfect slice of garage rock.  It’s a bit quicker than the Black Keys version, leaning a bit harder on a basic swinging rhythm.  Here, the guitar sticks to the basic riff, but there’s a killer sax solo that kicks the track into a higher gear.  There is a bit of a different approach to each performance: while the Black Keys were committed to wringing out each possible bit of angst from the song, the Sonics would seemingly be content to just toss this one in their set to keep the energy up.

Considering the relative similarities between the versions presented above, hearing the original is quite a shock.  It’s a doo-wop song with a much more straight-ahead rhythm (listen to the instruments hit every single eighth note–the only hint of swing is found in the bass line).  The carefree nature of the original mirrors The Sonics much more than The Black Keys, but one can see how The Black Keys came to their interpretation through The Sonics version.  It could be argued that by focusing on emphasizing the bluesier aspects of the song, that The Black Keys were accentuating the origins, but even I think that’s a bit much.  Still, in the end I think I prefer The Black Keys cover most of all–they keep the integrity of the garage rock version of it, but they add their own spin to it that makes it sound like a “Black Keys” song.

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