Covered: “Cortez the Killer”

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.

Zuma is one of my favorite Neil Young albums, but there is one track that stands out clearly from the rest and is the major reason why most people have this record in their collections: “Cortez the Killer”.  Even my mother, who is only a casual music fan and not really familiar with Young’s work, was compelled to remark about the song when she heard it for the first time, saying “that was beautiful.”  The song is known for its epic guitar solos, but unlike the vast majority of songs with the same claim, the tempo never gets above an ambling pace.  For over seven minutes, the audience is enraptured by gorgeous guitar lines that snake and wrap around the listener’s ears.  It’s an amazing feat.

Over the years, a lot of people who enjoy proving how smart they are, have taken aim at the lyrics and dismissed the song because of the historical inaccuracies.  True, to say “and war was never known” about the Aztecs, out of all the indigenous peoples of the Americas, is pretty ridiculous.  However, the song came out at a time when historians were beginning to teach a revised version of the interaction between European settlers and Native Americans, and if Neil Young swung the narrative too far in the other direction, it’s understandable.  However, consider that just saying “Cortez, Cortez…what a killer” was enough to apparently get this song banned in Spain during the 70’s, and that part was true.  In the end, I’d just say to those critics to get over themselves and enjoy the true beauty of the song, and let the guitars wash over you.

You know how I mentioned above how it was “an amazing feat” for Neil Young and Crazy Horse to keep the listener’s attention for over seven minutes simply by the beauty of the guitar solos?  Think how impressive it would be to do the same thing, except for twenty minutes.  That’s what Built to Spill was able to accomplish, as recorded on their Live album.

Over the years, Built to Spill has been known to play several covers and do an outstanding job on each of them, ranging from classic rock staple “Don’t Fear the Reaper” to M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes”.  I remember seeing a particularly impressive version of The Smith’s “How Soon Is Now?”, with the band able to perfectly nail that distinctive effect for the guitar.  But there may not have been a finer cover than their version of “Cortez”, which still amazes me to this day.  Doug Martsch is a fair match for Neil Young’s distinctive whine, and that’s without even an attempt at imitation; Martsch’s vocals also carry an additional fragility or vulnerability, which helps bring out the beauty of the song even more.

The astonishing thing about their cover is that at no point when listening does it ever feel like “this is a twenty minute song”; it sounds like it takes roughly around the same time as the original, even when you’re listening to several rounds of solos at the end.  And man, those solos…each separate round is able to offer new variations on the well-known melody without sounding repetitive, and able to galvanize the listener without showboating or grandstanding.  The solos keep building and building, and then reach a glorious climax, before slowly receding into the ether, because you have to take some time to calm yourself after witnessing such beauty.  It’s also way tougher to do than just fading out like the original did, though to be fair, that was apparently due to a lack of tape.

The point is, if you have nothing to do for the next half hour, listen to these two versions.  You can thank me later.

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