Under the Cover

Recently there have been suggestions that the band try to broaden the list of songs it covers, or maybe try covering a broader selection of artists. We do tend to play songs, as has been noted many times by us, by Bob Dylan or performers who at one time in their careers were called something along the lines of “the next Bob Dylan”. Hence the heavy rotation of tunes by Springsteen, John Prine, Warren Zevon, etc.
This week, though, I spent a couple of days ploughing through about 80 songs looking for things I’d like to sing. I whittled that down to a shortlist of around 20 that I’m working on. Of that 20 I’m betting that I’ll actually be able to get really comfortable with only 3 or 4, and of that probably only 2 or 3 will click with the band. So the process of finding a workable cover song can be quite daunting. Here’s why:
First and foremost I think, for both Dan and I, is the fact that we have to like the song. This may seem self evident on the face of it, but lots of musicians play cover songs that they don’t really care for. I think a lot of bands play for the audience rather than sing songs that they themselves really like. Working bands have an obligation not to stray outside of some fairly tight parameters, but we really don’t have those restrictions. I don’t mean to imply that we set out to play songs the audience won’t like, because that’s not the case at all, but we will play covers of songs that the audience won’t necessarily know. We play those songs because we know that they’re really great songs, whether or not they were ever “hits”.
The second thing is that I have to be able to find my way into a song. That generally means that I have to believe in the lyric. This doesn’t mean the lyrics have to be particularly profound, but I have to be able to see the story or the images in the words, or find something that connects with me. Otherwise I just won’t put in the time it takes to really learn a song well. So you might ask, then, how on earth can I cover something like
Let’s Twist Again? But I love that song. I see myself as a little kid with my parents doing the twist at a little family party. It’s surprisingly easy to get inside that song because of the great memories it brings back. That’s why I learned it in the first place all those years ago: it was fun to remind myself of that image.
There is lots of music out there that I like but wouldn’t dare try to cover. When push comes to shove I’m an acoustic rhythm guitarist who sings in a singer / songwriter style, for lack of a better term. So I’m not going to wreck songs sung by the likes of Bono or Frank Sinatra or Adele, anymore than I’m going to attempt opera or musical theatre. Not in my stylistic wheelhouse.
Other reasons not to cover a song: 1/ Too much production. There’s a reason a lot of modern artists “sing” to backing tracks, but we can’t do that and don’t really want to anyway. 2/ It’s harder to find great songs that most people will know. Radio isn’t the mass medium it used to be and besides, we’d just look like pandering idiots trying to cover a lot of the stuff that has become popular. Can’t see us singing
Call Me Maybe or Gangnam Style. 3/ We have limited abilities as musicians. There’s a style of music that most of us are mostly comfortable playing together, and any new song we bring to the band has to fit somewhere within that comfort zone.
So while it may be desirable to broaden our musical palette it’s perhaps easier said than done. Which isn’t to say we won’t try, but it will take some time, and the results will be mixed.