Cover songs: they're not just for bar bands anymore. (Question: Do bar bands still exist?) The new wave of covers probably started with Cat Power's The Covers Record, in which the slack-jawed yet grippingly talented Chan Marshall turned The Rolling Stones' classic and overplayed "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" into something creepy and mysterious, simply by slowing it down to 2 RPM and, oh by the way, cutting the chorus. I mean, if you're gonna make it your own, you might as well go for it, right? Who knew there were any lyrics other than "I can't get no! Satisfaction!" etc. Well, Chan Marshall did -- and it works.
I suppose if one accepts that we live in a postmodern world in which we cannot avoid referencing the art, style, and lives of others even if we wanted to, then we might as well just throw in the towel and stop pretending to be original. The best way to sound original is to play other people's songs in your own special way. It sounds silly, but it's true. If Exhibit A was Cat Power, then B is Alanis Morrisette and C is The Last Town Chorus, aka Megan Hickey.
Alanis Morrisette: "My Humps"
Here's one approach: remake a totally crap song. It not only makes you look funny and ironic, but you might even improve it! Such is the case with Alanis Morrisette's cover of the Black Eyed Peas' execrable "My Humps." If you are -- luckily -- unfamiliar with the original, it's probably enough to know that the title refers to singer Fergie's buttcheeks. Yay! Not only that, but she rhymes it with "lady lumps," which is BEP-speak for "Fergie's boobs." Double yay! If there's any question about how bad this song is (it's "horrifically bad... transcendentally bad... objectively bad," according to Slate's Hua Hsu), "My Humps" won the 2007 Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. The Grammys: predictably terrible. Previous winners in this category include Maroon 5, Hootie and the Blowfish, and Peabo Bryson for "Aladdin's Theme." It's that bad.
So what does Morrisette do? She remakes the video more or less faithfully, dressed in revealing, silly clothes and fake diamonds -- just like Fergie. She surrounds herself with male accomplices who are alternately fawning and threatening -- just like the ridiculously-monikered male members of the Black Eyed Peas (I will not stoop to name them here). And, in a real Cat Power moment, she slows the tempo of "My Humps" down to a crawl, replacing the original and lame synthesized orchestra that sounds like it was ripped straight off Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus" with an acoustic piano and Morrisette's signature snarling vocals. It's riveting. One effect of the unplugging of "My Humps" is the stark focus on the song's appalling lyrics. To wit:
What you gon' do with all that junk?
All that junk inside that trunk?
I'ma get, get, get, get, you drunk,
Get you love drunk off my hump.
What you gon' do with all that ass?
All that ass inside them jeans?
It's a question for the ages. I mean, what ARE you going to do with all that ass inside them jeans? I'm still trying to find a good answer myself. The funny thing about Morrisette's cover is that, if you closed your eyes, you might mistake it for a Tori Amos song. Seriously, only Amos could combine somber piano playing with lyrics about disturbing sexual issues (see: "Leather," from Little Earthquakes, among others). I say this as a Tori Amos fan. And, with "My Humps," I think I can finally call myself an Alanis Morrisette fan, too.
The Last Town Chorus, aka Megan Hickey: "Modern Love"
It's not fair to call David Bowie's 1983 tune "Modern Love" a crap song -- it's only crap by Bowie's incredibly high standards. Maybe it's not crap at all. At any rate, it's no "Life on Mars." But what is? The point here is that the lap-steel playing, Brooklyn-based Megan Hickey, who performs under the name The Last Town Chorus, chose this, shall we say, lesser Bowie song to cover, and what a good choice it was. Seu Jorge proved it's possible to do justice to the great Bowie songbook, but probably only if you sing the lyrics in Portuguese.
Hickey's version, from the new album, Wire Waltz (Hacktone) transforms Bowie's totally '80s pop into a wistful ode. Bowie's only song to include the fratty lyric, "makes me party," becomes a sad song that could have been written by, say, Suzanne Vega. No one's ever mistaken her for Ziggy Stardust. The main factor here, though, is the lap-steel guitar. I will go out on a limb and declare that the lap-steel, proficiently played, will improve ANY song. Hickey's playing is beautiful here, and so is "Modern Love." Walks beside me... walks on by... gets me to the church on time.
Alanis Morrisette's "My Humps" (on YouTube.com -- note the posting date: April 1, 2007 Â– this must be an April Fool's prank, right?).
Black Eyed Peas's "My Humps" (on YouTube.com) -- this video is so awful, so low-budget and silly, it should have been a prank. But somehow they punk'd America.
The Last Town Chorus's "Modern Love" (on myspace.com).