Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Little About Cover Songs

Everyone knows what a "cover" is. Some singer or band has a hit and sometime later another artist records the same song in a different version. Sometimes the new version is a copy of the original. Sometimes, not. One of my faves is the David Bowie's version of the Beach Boys God Only Knows. It's very different from the original. A lot edgier.

In the case of the song which is the subject of this blog, I heard the cover version first, really liked it and only then did I become familiar with the original. I wish it'd been the other way around.

I had listened, many times, to Leslie Feist's cover of the Bee Gees disco hit, Love You, Inside and Out.

I didn't know the original until I looked it up on YouTube, but Feist's version is pretty neat.


I've a special place for the Bee Gees because the first professional band in which I played performed a medley of their 60s hits. I quit the band to go away to university and I didn't listen to the Bee Gees (or much other popular music) for years after that. I've never seen Saturday Night Fever and was only vaguely aware of the Bee Gees disco recordings.

Bee Gees in the Sixties

I should mention that the Brother's Gibb had a string of pop song hits in the late sixties, kind of disappeared, then returned with a vengeance some ten years later with a parade of disco hits from their Platinum selling album Spirits Having Flown, some of which are played in Saturday Night Fever, a dance-drama in which John Travolta played his breakout film role.

John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever

The original recording of this great song, has a mix of 1979 synthesizer sounds and acoustic instruments including strings, horns and percussion, accompanying Robin Gibbs' high solo vocals and two of his brothers singing the harmony lines (all in falsetto) all produced by Robert Stigwood.

It's just a pop song, but a helluva pop song. The lyrics are hardly great poetry but the same has been said of some of the standards in the Great American Songbook.

Pay particular attention to the rising string scale that usually follows words "inside and out" (beginning of the chorus) in sixteens (doh, re, mi, fah, sol---). I've linked to this version with the lyrics on purpose.

Twenty-five years on, Leslie Feist covered this song. This time it's mostly her voice and electronics. It's produced (and some of the instruments played) by Gonzalez who was Feist's collaborator and producer at the time. With today's technology, it's hard to know what acoustic instruments are there, but every sound, whatever its source, is clearly placed in the mix. Especially with headphones, the listener can pick out all the individual instruments.

What a difference in the sound! The clean and detailed 2004 version is very different from the "over the top" full Disco orchestration of the original, replete with doublings and reverb. There are so many different sounds mixed together in the original that it's sometimes difficult to figure out who's playing what.

The tempo is a little faster. The form of the song (including the shortened verse after the first chorus) and all the main features of the original arrangement are still there. You'll notice the ascending scale passage that follows the lyrics "inside and out" is played on a synth instead of violins.

The meaning of the lyrics is transformed when a woman sings the song. I'll bet that's what attracted Feist to the song in the first place (and that's why I suggested you read the lyrics, first time through).

Really good songs can be altered and re-arranged. Many pop songs lose their centre when they're pulled apart and reassembled. It was the arrangement and the total effect of all the components that was interesting, not the song itself.

Black Eyed Peas songs are like that. They're sectional, depending on changes of instrumentation and the band's two vocalists to hold the audience's attention. Songs like I Gotta Feeling wouldn't survive having their elaborate arrangements removed and being performed by one or two fully clothed performers.

Inside and Out, transformed into a ballad, might even stand up to a solo performance by one singer with a guitar. Someone like Feist. I'd like to hear that.

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