New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones has been contemplating cover songs on his blog recently, specifically how a great cover either Kills (“be killingly good, perhaps good enough to stand alongside the original”) or Owns (“redefine the song and steal it from the author”). I had that topic on my mind this weekend when I was talking with a friend about the CSS cover of L7’s “Pretend We’re Dead.” After listening to it a ton in the past few weeks and watching it totally slay in some DJ sets, I have to say that I prefer it to the original.
Sticking to Frere-Jones’s definition, the CSS version steals enough to qualify as a cover that Owns, but it doesn’t really redefine anything. It’s essentially played the exact same way L7 did it, with some of the guitars replaced by synths. CSS’s take may emphasize the song’s inherent popiness a little more than the original, but they’re not really adding anything. Still, for some reason I like it better.
It doesn’t happen very often, but occasionally a band can do an absolutely straightforward cover of a song and completely steal it from the original artist. The Clash did it with “I Fought the Law,” Aretha Franklin did it with “Respect,” and a few garage bands—the Headcoatees come immediately to mind—have almost managed to seize “Strychnine” from the Sonics.
It’s almost unfair that some artists come up with inspired remakes that merely Kill—the Posies with “Richie Dagger’s Crime,” Ted Leo with “Since U Been Gone”—while CSS and the Clash straight up jack their covers and end up Owning them. They just bring out an energy the original lacks, leaving us little choice but to hand the song over.
I know that there are a bunch more covers that work the same way. What have I missed?