Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Elvis Presley. The Beatles. Bob Dylan. Jimi Hendrix. Aretha Franklin. Bruce Springsteen. The Replacements. Nirvana.

One thing many great rock and roll artists/bands have in common is that oh so many of them are great cover artists. R.E.M., for instance, had the ability to take a familiar song and make it sound like one of theirs, yet without stripping the original of what made it great in the first place—their semi-ramshackle cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Who'll Stop the Rain," for example, is amazing, hindered only by slightly the fact that Michael Stipe barely knows the words. And yet, despite that, their delicately southern gothic take on the song approaches transcendence, with the subtle harmonies of Mike Mills and Bill Berry adding something that even CCR's utterly flawless version didn't have, while Peter Buck's Byrdian arpeggios fit the mood impossibly perfectly.

But what they also liked doing was taking a song significantly less...significant, and treating it as though it were every bit the equal of a John Fogerty masterpiece. Their take on "Love Is All Around," from their Unplugged show is an obvious and well-known one, as are their official covers of Wire's "Strange" and various Velvet Underground songs—not to mention their gloriously drunken dismemberment of Roger Miller's "King of the Road"—but they surprisingly delighted in the arena rock of Lou Gramm's "Midnight Blue" on their Document tour; at the time, it seemed impossible it was anything but snark no matter how much the band insisted they just liked the song, but with the benefit of hindsight, it appears simply a sign of things to come—I mean, the seeds of "Departure" seem very much to have been sown right there.

But I'm not sure anything tops their cover of the Classics IV song "Spooky."

If I had a time machine I could only use once, I would go back in time and hand Bill the lyrics so he doesn't start laughing during his verse. (This is why no one ever trusts me with a time machine. But, I mean, come on. The cover's great even with the screwup, but without it, it'd be phenomenal.) Sure, Mike comes to the rescue, but this is the only time I know of where all three R.E.M. vocalists trade solo vocals like this, giving an invaluable opportunity to compare and contrast. Mike's verse shows his smooth style. Bill's is shortened but shows a rough country inflection, and gives an indication of why Michael Stipe said Bill had the best voice in the band, in a conventional sense.

And then comes Stipe. His voice wasn't for everyone. It wasn't as appealing in a low key way as Berry's, and he didn't have the understanding of harmony that Mills had and throughout the band's entire run he often had trouble with his pitch. But here his commanding entrance, the way he assuredly takes over from the previous two very good vocalists shows why he was the lead singer from the first, even back when he was so shy he'd literally hide behind the others or even his hair, and shows exactly why he was the one who became the rock star. From his first few syllables, you can tell: this guy's got It.

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