Category: Langley Schools Music Project

Inventory: 14 cover songs that are better than the originals

1. Stevie Wonder, “We Can Work It Out”
The Lennon/McCartney-penned single “We Can Work It Out” comes from the middle of The Beatles’ most radical creative reinvention, the 1965 shift from the straightforward pop of Help! to the multifaceted Rubber Soul, which would revolutionize their music, and by extension, everybody else’s. So it’s fitting that when Stevie Wonder covered the song on 1970′s Signed, Sealed & Delivered, he was in the middle of a similar transition from Motown’s teenage wunderkind to the socially conscious and superfunky artist he became in the mid-’70s. Wonder’s performance is so powerful, in fact, that it changes the meaning of the song without changing a word. The Beatles’ original is a desperate plea for reconciliation, delivered with passion but little hope. (The song was inspired by Paul McCartney’s fractious, doomed relationship with then-girlfriend Jane Asher.) But Wonder’s version is all about hope, and his joyous, sizzling funk makes “We Can Work It Out” a promise, not a plea.

3. The Blind Boys Of Alabama, “Way Down In The Hole”
Tom Waits’ offbeat gospel song is one of the highlights of his 1987 disc Frank’s Wild Years, and it’s even better on the subsequent live album Big Time, where Waits interjects a grizzle-voiced sermon about using hydraulic-powered faith-healing to blast the devil out of your soul. But both versions take a mockingly ironic tone toward Waits’ perspective character, a tent-revival preacher promising heaven in exchange for your cash, and neither completely shakes a sense of theatrical artificiality. That’s definitely not the case for gospel group Blind Boys Of Alabama, whose smoking, bluesy rendition of the song on 2001′s Spirit Of The Century hits with genuine fire and fervor. It also picked up added resonance when the producers of HBO’s terrific The Wire used it as the theme song for its first season, perfectly encapsulating the series’ complicated dance with good and evil.

6. Elvis Costello, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding?”
Nick Lowe’s original version of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding?”, recorded in 1974 with his pub-rock band Brinsley Schwarz, is a minor classic of English pre-punk, and it doesn’t sound terribly different from the one recorded by Lowe’s buddy Elvis Costello five years later. On the plus side, it actually kicks in with some sweet harmonies after the line “where is the harmony, sweet harmony?” On the debit side, there’s Lowe’s dated, hippieish talking bit about how we need to save the world for “the children of a new generation.” Costello’s arrangement is tighter and more assertive, all the better to get right to the point: Why the hell can’t people stop being total bastards to each other? The passionate fury in Costello’s voice transforms “Peace, Love, And Understanding” into a condemnation of humanity’s propensity for cruelty, violence, and war—and elevates it into one of the greatest songs in the rock canon.

Originally published on March 12, 2007 as part of a group-written Inventory feature; I wrote the sections on Stevie Wonder, The Blind Boys Of Alabama, Elvis Costello, and Langley Schools Music Project. Read the complete article.

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