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.
For this edition of Covered, we’ve decided to take up a suggestion from one of our friends from Twitter. We had never head the cover before and only had passing familiarity with the original, but nevertheless we decided to take up the challenge and assess the merits to the best of our ability. If you feel we’ve failed, don’t blame The Captain, but our own hubris.
The Joshua Tree deserves its reputation as one of the best albums of the 80’s as well as a definite of U2’s career, but for many music fans my age, their general knowledge of the record is limited to the big three singles that kick off the album, thanks to the endless repetition on the radio of “Where the Streets Have No Name”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and “With Or Without You”. While all three are great songs in their own right, they paint an incomplete picture of The Joshua Tree as a whole; and because these songs have been so overplayed, the desire to sit down and listen to the album is often absent, so the rest of the record is often overlooked. It’s too bad, because then you miss out on such gems as “Bullet the Blue Sky”,* “One Tree Hill”, and “Running to Stand Still”.
“Running to Stand Still” is a different kind of ballad than the overblown epic, anthemic types with which U2 has become synonymous, as it demonstrates a certain subtlety that the band has unfortunately neglected in recent years. The song begins with a quick country-tinged blues guitar riff, a nod to the album’s Americana themes, before shifting focus to the delicate piano chords which make up the bulk of the song, augmented by a light palm-muted guitar (which connects the music to the first third of the album). As the song builds, Larry Mullen, Jr.’s thundering toms then help guide the song to its climax. As the song peaks, Bono refrains from breaking into a full-throated bellow as would be expected, and instead takes a more measured approach as he gingerly sings the final lines. The song then tapers off with a mournful harmonica solo, creating a whirlwind of emotions within the listener–there is a sense of deprivation as the listener is deprived of the desired big climax, but at the same time there is a deep appreciation for the restraint which matches the mood created by the lyrics.
Though Elbow has enjoyed a certain level of popularity among critics for a number of years, my only experience with the band is catching on Palladia a part of a festival performance of theirs; they’re one of those bands that I always mean to check out but unfortunately never do. My initial impression of the band brings to mind comparisons to Coldplay and Frightened Rabbit, even though I know Elbow predates both bands. In other words, Elbow fits perfectly as a new millennium version of U2.
As for this cover, Elbow does a great job of respecting the reverence of the original while adding their own personal touches on the edges. They expand a bit on the intro with a few embellishments of the acoustic guitar, before transitioning to the piano section. Here, instead of relying on block chords with the occasional melodic connections, the band chooses to arpeggiate them instead, elongating the progression and giving the song an additional bit of momentum. As the song moves into its climax, the band eschews the thunderous toms of the original and instead relies on a more traditional drum pattern. The intro guitar makes an additional appearance in this version, making its inclusion seem like less of a novelty, but most importantly Elbow exhibits the same restraint as the song fades to a quiet finish.
This was one of several covers that were done for this War Child compilation, and I have to say this performance has piqued my interest into how all the other acts did with their takes on some classics. As for this cover, though it doesn’t offer too much in terms of original spin on the material, it still rises above being a mere rote take of the U2 version. Perhaps this will be the nudge that I needed to dive into the rest of Elbow’s catalog.
*When I got to see U2 on the Vertigo tour, the unquestioned highlight of the show for me was their surprise performance of “Bullet the Blue Sky”. Sure, it was great to hear the big three from The Joshua Tree, but you expect those to be played, which made their inclusion of “Bullet” that much better.