Ain't The Best Good Enough For You?
By Mike White
I'm hard pressed to decide if there's some sort of postulate that can be applied to cover versions of songs. Are they a litmus test that determines whether the songs themselves are entertaining or if credit is solely due to the original artist? Or, do they serve as catalysts; allowing a listener to hear the merits of one artist's interpretation of the song over another? So far, neither idea appears fully satisfying.
When it comes to cover songs, I'm invariably reminded of Bauhaus' take on David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust." While the original is competent and catchy, Bauhaus takes the song to new levels. The jangly acoustic guitar of Bowie is replaced by a crunchy electric guitar that often threatens to overcome Peter Murphy's howling vocals. Now that is a successful experiment! On the other end of the scale, though, is something like Lenny Kravitz's "American Woman." Somehow Kravitz manages to take a Guess Who song and rob it of any kind of soul it may have once had; as if running it through a juicer and trying to infuse the pulp with life.
"American Woman" wasn't the first song to which Kravitz has applied his patented nouveau retro sound. Years prior he was involved with an entry in one of the more alarming trends in music, the complete cover album. Dedicated to one artist or another, complete cover albums are coming out far too often nowadays. While some are inventive, others are glib. Instead of showing a reverence for the original material, a good number of cover albums are experiments in performing older songs in such a wide variety of genres that they border on ridiculous. Take, for example, the two KISS cover compilation albums: Hard to Believe and Kiss My Ass. The former is a rocking collection of cover songs coming out of Seattle before Seattle was big. The latter is yesterday's hits by 1994's hit artists (Kravitz, Toad The Wet Sprocket, Extreme, The Lemonheads, et al.).
Judging by the pick of songs alone, one can see that the artists involved in Hard to Believe have a real love of KISS. Smelly Tongues' version of "Parasite" alone is proof of that. Few folks would choose to revere such an overlooked Ace Frehley-voiced tune. Conversely, Kiss My Ass feels gimmicky and thrown together. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones succeed in choking the life out of "Detroit Rock City" with their tired ska™ sound while Gin Blossoms provide a dismaying rendition of "Christine Sixteen." Ironically, while I'm a big Nirvana fan, I find their whiny take on "Do You Love Me?" to be the weakest spot on Hard to Believe, while the odd stand-out of Kiss My Ass proves to be Garth Brooks and his demonstration of what a real singer can do with "Hard Luck Woman."
Hard to Believe is exceptional, especially when comparing it to other recent cover albums. Most of my experience with these collections has been negative. Instead of finding new life in old songs I'm often reminded of just how good the originals are and doubt the creative ability of the cover artists. A prime example of this is the Black Sabbath tribute album, Nativity In Black. When listening to a track like "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath," I realize that one of the things I enjoy about the work of Black Sabbath is the vocal styling of Ozzy Osbourne. To hear a classic Sabbath song performed by such a pat '70s metal dude as Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson exemplifies the distinctive place of Black Sabbath not only in my heart but as a heavy metal icon. Dickinson's operatic trills are in line with the overwrought antics of Rob Halford (Judas Priest), Geddy Lee (Rush), Ronnie James Dio (who fronted Black Sabbath in their darker days) and Corey Glover (Living Colour). Meanwhile, the only singer that begins to hold a candle to Ozzy is Faith No More's Mike Patton as evidenced by the ages-old cover of "War Pigs."
Oddly, Ozzy makes an appearance on the album doing "Iron Man" while backed by Therapy. This track adds merely aids in driving in the final nail in Nativity In Black's coffin-demonstrating why the original Black Sabbath was so much better than the lame-ass covers by jokers like Megadeth and Biohazard. I must concede that Nativity In Black does contain what could be initially perceived as a contrived experiment in hard-edged industrial with 1,000 Homo DJs' mechanized version of "Supernaut." Instead of being artifice, this cover shows an understanding of the material and a desire to express it in a contemporary and toe-tapping way. It stands out not only as the most successful experiment on the album but also as the smartest. Ironically, 1,000 Homo DJs is led by Al Jourgensen of Ministry (doing his best Trent Reznor impersonation). Perhaps performing under a different name allows Jourgensen to stretch his creative abilities and avoid producing the same cookie-cutter Ministry-ish music that he's been doing for the last decade.
Nativity In Black hosts a few other competent covers such as White Zombie's "Children of the Grave" but Colombia Records missed the boat (and the point) by including flash-in-the-pan acts like Ugly Kid Joe over Alice Donut's horn-heavy "War Pigs," the Butthole Surfer's "Sweet Loaf," or Soundgarden's "Into The Void/Stealth" from their "Rusty Cage" single. (C'mon, if anyone were to be proclaimed heir to Black Sabbath's throne, it would have to be Soundgarden.)
Poor Black Sabbath has been the subject of at least three other cover albums: Hell Rules, Eternal Masters, and the appropriately named Masters of Misery. All three boast cuts by metal bands of various ilk-speed, death, etc.-and, again, they only show the phenomenal success of the original Black Sabbath tunes. I'd be hard pressed to determine which of these additional Black Sabbath cover albums is the worst of the three between the lead singer of Cannibal Corpse growling his way through "Zero the Hero" on Eternal Masters and Agent Steel's "Sweet Leaf" sounding like a track off an Adam Sandler album on Hell Rules. However, boasting Sleep plodding through "Snowblind" and Confessor's completely off-tune performance "Hole in the Sky," Masters of Misery is probably the most grating.
This brings me to the latest cover album I've rued to give listen. As Never Give In: A Tribute To Bad Brains began, I thought that my record player was on 16 rpm instead of 33 1/3. As quickly as that idea passed through my mind I realized that I was listening to a compact disc where controlling the rotations per minute is not an option. How then could this plodding song be on a cover album of one of the most raucous and assaultive bands of the eighties?
Little did I know in those first few seconds that I was about to experience the highlight of the album. I was hearing the introduction to a splendid execution of Bad Brains' "Sailin' On." By slowing the pace and stripping the instrumentation to a bare minimum, techno wizard Moby is not showing any disrespect to the source material. Instead, his treatment of "Sailin' On" as a melancholy ballad of redemption demonstrates the beauty of Bad Brains' lyrics and melody. Ah, if only everyone on Never Give In could have ventured so far.
The second song on Never Give In is a fun cover of "Pay To Cum" by Ignite. In listening to this, I was reminded of yet another great punk band from the '80s, Naked Raygun. Let's hope no one ever decides to do a tribute album to them (or is it too late?). However, from there it all goes down hill... In watching N.Y.H.C. (see page 73), one of the bands mentioned to influence the hard core hooligans of the '90s is Bad Brains. Unfortunately, it's hardcore bands who've wheedled their way onto Never Give In and dominate the rest of the album.
The original Bad Brains had a terrific dynamic of thick drum and guitar music with the wailing-yet-melodic vocals soaring above them. Not only would albums drift from an onslaught of fast-paced punk tunes to sincere, plaintive reggae but the songs themselves were unpredictable; shifting gears one or more times even while their running times often clocked in shy of two minutes. Bad Brains' original lead singer H.R. (Paul Hudson) had used his voice as an instrument and a weapon. He could growl, shout, and moan all in the course of a word. On a song like "We Will Not," he implemented his voice as a percussive force. There was a craftsmanship present in his vocal abilities not found in many singers and definitely absent from this so-called "tribute album."
The majority of the bands on Never Give In pale in comparison musically and, especially, vocally. Granted, H.R. wasn't always the best at enunciating his lyrics but he was more comprehensible than not. On Never Give In, however, too many bands present adhere to the "Cookie Monster" singing style - grumbling and shouting until their over-modulated voices become a misshapen blur. In reviewing this album I'm tempted to set up some sort of continuum of obnoxiousness with bands ranging from intolerable to mind-numbingly awful (it'd look something like this: Adamantium, Skinlab, 16, Haste, Shai Halud, Turmoil, Will Haven, Boy Sets Fire, Downset, Sepultura, Entombed - note that there are only sixteen tracks on this compilation and eleven of them are listed here!).
While I wouldn't try to deny artists the right to cover anyone they chose, I feel compelled to report that Bad Brains deserves better than what is present on Never Give In. Instead of investing in this album, one's money would be much better spent on investing in the original works of Bad Brains. Adding Rock For Light and/or I Against I to your record collection would be a good first move-and it'll let you hear what all the fuss is about.