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, since we’re in the middle of “Beck Week” here at RIJR, we’re going to be using him as a pivot in this feature. In other words, we’ll be examining both a cover done by Beck as well as another artist covering one of Beck’s songs.
Initially, I was going to analyze Beck’s cover of Dylan’s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”. I first heard this cover at a live show on the Modern Guilt tour, back when I was in New York. I remember how energized Beck was for that particular song, which was a marked contrast to his demeanor for most of the rest of his set (I also want to pin some of the blame on the audience, who were pretty indifferent to much of the set, even when it dipped into Odelay-era rarities like “Minus”). I wasn’t sure how much the lackluster performance could be blamed on doing a multi-night stand, or on the venue (the United Palace Theater is a pretty stunning venue, but while it’s perfect for acts like Sigur Ros, it’s not as conducive to a full-on rock show), or just general malaise from doing yet another tour. In subsequent interviews, I learned that Beck had severe back pain during that era, which makes me feel a bit bad for being generally disappointed with the show.
To keep a long story from going any longer, I decided to go with a different cover, because while I enjoy Beck’s version, I feel that it’s a little too close to the original to be worth further analysis. It’s pretty much how you would imagine a Beck cover of a Dylan song would go–it’s got the ragged feel of the original, slightly more uptempo, with a fuzzier bass and electro-country leads. In other words, it’s not exactly like Death Grips taking a lyric from the song and going in a completely different direction. Instead I’m going to look at a cover that I only learned existed recently, that of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon”.
Like many of my generation, I am not ashamed to admit that I first heard the song in a Volkswagen ad. It’s not as if I had a huge knowledge of the English folk scene from the 70’s back in high school, so please pardon my ignorance. But I was touched by just the pure beauty of the song, from the soft vocals, the churning acoustic guitar, and that delicate little piano melody that somehow in one line ties the whole thing together. The album would soon hold a dear place in my heart, most notably as a soundtrack to my first couple of semesters of college.
Beck does a great job of capturing the same atmosphere and emotional feelings of the original, and is definitely faithful in that regard. It’s interesting how it is distinctly Beck’s voice, but he is still able to evoke the memory of Nick Drake’s vocals. The difference between the two comes from the guitar parts, which leads to a focus on different rhythms in each version. Most people don’t realize the technical complexity of Nick Drake’s guitar playing; it is an example of how sometimes the most difficult things to do sometimes appear easy to the untrained eye. He used a lot of alternate tunings that allowed him to play a lot of complex rhythmic and lead parts at the same time, often interacting with each other in the same measure. That’s why there’s a consistent drive to the rhythm in the original. Beck (wisely) chooses to not imitate the complexity of those guitar lines, and instead emphasizes certain beats with strummed chords, giving the song a more laid-back feel, and in turn making it somehow even more melancholy. This even extends to the famous piano melody, which with this extra bit of drag conveys an even greater sense of longing.
Now we have the slightly more difficult task of looking at those who have attempted to cover Beck. Surprisingly, there are not that many from which to choose. On the one hand, Beck has composed hundreds of songs, dabbled in dozens of genres, and been around for over two decades now, so you’d think there would be a wide variety of artists that would attempt to cover his work. But even through all those various detours and musical experiments, there is the singular persona of Beck that shines through, and he leaves a specific stamp on each song that he does. But it makes sense that it’s from his album Sea Change, in many ways his most straight-forward singer/songwriter record, that we see at least an attempt by others to try out.
“The Golden Age” kicks off the record, and in many ways after those opening lines (“Put your hands on the wheel/Let the Golden Age begin”), it’s all downhill from there, at least emotionally speaking. I’ll never forget that when the Boston Red Sox won the World Series back in 2004 that the network broadcasting their victory decided that this was an appropriate song to mark the occasion, making it one of the best examples of an executive green-lighting a song without ever hearing the whole thing. Who doesn’t love celebrating with a song whose chorus goes “These days I barely get by/I don’t even try”?
It’s hard to even call this a cover, since the Flaming Lips toured with Beck shortly after Sea Change came out. So you know they at least do a faithful job of covering the music. I do appreciate the rumbling low-end that the Lips manage here, but I miss the slide guitar parts from the original, which added a great counterpoint to the melody. Wayne Coyne adds a bit more fragility to his vocals, but he doesn’t get the same longing feel that Beck conveys in his part. What I find most interesting though is the fact that they omit the second verse, which is actually the one that I prefer. This may be due to the live nature of the performance for a radio show, but it’s an interesting comment if it’s intentional.
Another cover of a Beck song that I think is worth sharing is The Cinematics performing “Sunday Sun”, also from Sea Change. Already one of the more uplifting songs on the album, The Cinematics turn it into a genuinely happy song. It’s not just in the attitude and tempo, but through each part, from the drums (the sixteenth-note hi-hat rhythms help drive the song), to the guitar tones, to the vocals themselves which are simply cheerier. Beck’s original is much more dramatic, and does a great job in building and building over the course of the song. But even when the melody soars, Beck maintains a certain tension with his vocals over the course of the song, which makes the collapse at the end fit perfectly.