I’m fascinated by cover songs – I think because it’s rather less obvious than it might seem what exactly makes up the “song” that’s being covered. Some covers highlight this issue – such as many of Mark Kozelek’s covers, whose source song frequently remains only as some lyrics and a ghost of their phrasing. Others highlight it more subtly, as when what would seem a perfect copy of a brilliant, energetic song proves to be a decoy bobbing listlessly on the surface of one’s impressions.
Another interesting thing about cover versions is the way they highlight how hard it is to do simple right. Take Matt Keating’s cover of The Smiths’ “Reel Around the Fountain,” for example. (Scroll down to find it – here’s a link to the Hatful of Hollow version.) When I first heard Keating’s version, I thought it was – to be blunt – incredibly lame. I assumed it had been tossed off at the piano off the top of Keating’s head, from memory: the chords flowed hesitantly, oddly; Keating changed some of them (to no good effect)…and he skips the bridge – “I dreamt about you last night/And I fell out of bed twice” – which not only provides a bit of melodic contrast (essential at this point in Morrissey’s development as a singer, since his melodies often seemed limited to four or five notes at best) but are among his funnier lines and a useful corrective to the wistful tone of the rest of the lyrics.
It got better the second time I heard it – mostly because I realized I’d been trying to hear it “through” the Smiths’ version (and hence, not hearing what I expected when Keating doesn’t go where the Smiths did) rather than trying to understand it on its own terms. I think Keating wanted to strip an already stark song down to even barer core. He minimizes the only harmonic complexity in the original (where the titular phrase is sung), and doesn’t try to reproduce Johnny Marr’s ringing arpeggiations.
Still, all that’s a bad idea – if only because it’s nearly impossible not to hear the original. This is, of course, the chief problem with covering a very well-known song: unless you radically alter the arrangement, it’s hard for the cover to have any effect other than sending listeners back to the old house of the original. Keating’s failure is interesting and useful, though: he sensed something about the original, which did eschew musical fanciness in favor of an apparent simplicity and straightforwardness, and sought to extend it. In this case, though, I think the few bits of filigree in the original arrangement are essential to the song. The slight rhythmic complication in the guitar at the end of the first phrase, just prior to the shift to the F#-minor chord which anticipates the next measure’s downbeat, wakes us from the potential stupor of that dead-simple bass rhythm. The chorus (such as it is) drops us chromatically to an unexpected Gmaj7 chord, which slides down another half-step to F# minor, after which we’re suspended for a bit on B minor, before we go back to the A major that begins the verses. Along the way, there’s some fiddly bits with the open E string, which gives the whole section a tentative, slightly uncertain air – but because they’re played with certainty, that tentativeness is located in the situation or narrator rather than in the performance. Keating reduces that section to a seesaw between Gmaj7 and F#m, and here his rhythm seems especially tentative, as if he’s not sure where these chords are going or leading. And indeed, when he returns to the verse, it almost sounds like a completely unmotivated modulation – as if he finally remembered what chord he was supposed to play, and simply went there without so much as a by-your-leave-ma-am.
Then, Smiths songs are hard to cover – because they depend so much on Morrissey’s persona, conveyed through his lyrics and phrasing – and Morrissey’s one of the more complex lyric writers out there. Forget yr monodimensional, mid-nineties slacker definition of “irony”: Morrissey understands it as a most subtle tool, many-faceted and reflective, and it’s tricky indeed to discern exactly in which direction he feints, thrusts, or parries. It’s here that, in their early collaboration in particular, Marr’s static, cycling arpeggios are essential (an even more extreme example is “Suffer Little Children,” where the guitar becomes positively hypnotic, until its spell is broken by a quickly moving and peculiar harmonic interlude as Morrissey names one of the murderers). They variously provide a field against which Morrissey’s mercurial moods play out, or a screen to obscure them.
For me, Keating’s approach, rather than heightening the song’s emotional power, drains it of subtlety by making it a bit too straightforward. Smiths songs often sound simple, but in practice they rarely are, either musically or lyrically, and while they can be direct (which is another virtue Keating tries to convey), they’re rarely simple.