Music is why we do this. Our first words, first steps, first love and everything until our last breath are backed by beats of the heart. It is no wonder that music inspires. The biggest thing music inspires is…. more music. When an artist covers a track, it can be a one-to-one performance (i.e. a cover band), or a complete re-imagining and re-interpretation. We’ll focus on the latter this week.
In the same spirit, artists can sample tracks. Sampling is using an element from another song like the beat, chorus, rhythm, etc. It is generally more of a nod to the original track. Sampling has long been practiced in the music industry, made particularly popular by artists like RZA and Kanye West. One might call these undercover covers.
Mark Ronson, Kevin Parker, Andrew Wyatt, and Kirin J. Callinan had a complete and utter jam session. It went down in 2015 for Triple J’s Like a Version (an amazing cover series). I’m going to talk about it, but you must promise me you’ll watch it. You promise? Ok, good. The moment they start, you know this isn’t Queens of the Stone Age’s I Sat by the Ocean. It’s not trying to be. That’s the thing with these types of covers. They are born from inspiration, not emulation.
Andrew Wyatt’s raw, vulnerable delivery of lyrics over the now psychedelic backdrop, retells the story without changing the words. The slowed tempo, rhythm changeup, and energy between all involved crafts this chill vibe about an otherwise somber song. Its edge takes on a different shape. By the end it’s raw. Wyatt is belting at the top end of his falsetto, dumping everything into it… then drops the mic. Mark Ronson finishes it out, never once changing his expression or demeanor. That is how you own a cover.
Having a sister who works for a record label, I know all too well how hard it is for a sampled song to go from an idea to our ears. Legal red tape prevents us from hearing so many deeply creative uses of clips, snips, and loops. ?uestlove did not take any chances when he wanted to sample Radiohead’s You and Whose Army? He asked Jay-Z if he could connect with the legendary group, and that was that. It was done in minutes even though there was no prior relationship. He was just Jay-Z being Jay-Z, getting the roots access to Radiohead’s blueprints.
Atonement, a track from The Roots' Game Theory, opens with a long, somber vibrato fading into the opening hook. A familiar melody sits just beneath it all. Thom Yorke’s vocals eventually float into the background, effortlessly demanding to know You and Whose Army? The first time I heard this song, I just froze. It’s like when you first learn peanut butter and chocolate can be mixed to form a masterpiece. It is that good. Black thought spends the track telling a story. Jack Davey and Thom Yorke’s vocals blend genres in the hook, really showing the strength of sampling. Though the practice became a bit of a crutch for some, when it is done in earnest, it is captivating. This track always ends up on repeat.
Antonio Carlos Jobim is likely one of the most influential songwriters of all time, but in the modern discourse of pop I find his influence to be understated at best. My discovery of him started differently than most people, who are likely aware of him for contributing what is possibly one of the most important songs in the entire canon of the last century, Garota de Ipanema (The Girl from Ipanema), made immortal through Joaõ Gilberto and Stan Getz's inimitably breezy arrangement.
My introduction to bossa nova and Jobim came in my teens from hearing a cover done by Cornelius—an enigmatic japanese mutli-instrumentalist/producer who seems to sidestep genre classification as easily as some people breathe—of one of Jobim's countless seminal songs, (Aquarelo do) Brasil. His interpretation of what was originally a mellow, sauntering strut has been robbed of all warmth, cigarette smoke, and gentleness to replace it with something skittery, overwhelming, mechanical... yet somehow brimming with the same effervescent, unmistakable humanity of the original. Cornelius' Brazil is without a doubt a highlight of the album it inhabits, but also likely one of my favorite covers of all time while also being one of the most obviously divergent from its origin I know of.
Instead of taking something from an icon such as Jobim and spinning it into something new and strange, Radiohead's Idioteque is the opposite case, wherein an iconic group took something largely unknown, and made it not only it legible and familiar, but into instant classic. What they did in transforming a mere snippet of Paul Lansky's Mild und Leise was to alchemically reshape something seemingly formless and almost entirely bereft of humanity into the emotional and rhythmic apex of arguably their most genius album. They took a 10 second sample of an esoteric piece of contemporary classical electronic music and did nothing less than redefine rock music itself. This is likely the most important piece of sampled music to me, personally, but possibly one of the most significant samples outside of hip-hop period.
Picture the year 2016, and how different the world was compared to today’s current year. The music world was introduced to Adele’s “25” only a couple months prior to the new year. In the United States, a historical November election was brewing; and a water crisis in Flint, MI was declared a national emergency. However, it was early in 2016 when I discovered an artist I adored at first listen with her trio of songs at NPR’s “Tiny Desk”, Lianne La Havas.
I was lovestruck for someone who had such a knack for pitch and soul in such a minimalist tonal palette of piano, backing vocals, and the occasional electric guitar to create a scant foundation for an amazing vocal performance. I discovered her two albums released prior to that concert and I waited for any news of a new release. Around the time of my long awaited return to a CanJam, held in New York City on Valentine's weekend and COVID-19 still being a blip on the radar of domestic affairs, I caught the first glimpse of new material on what would eventually be Lianne’s self-titled record.
An album to scrapbook a relationship, the self-titled collection of songs contains a notable cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”. For the album, this interpolation that removes the aquatic-layered instrumental soundscape Radiohead employs in favor of a half-time meditation on the relationship woes that Lianne is revealing. A poetic climax amongst songs sneaking peaks into a journal that accompanied such emotional times. Lianne’s voice holds the character of karma’s ambassador, coming to collect on complacency. The backing vocals sounding like friends pouring support out for Lianne as she faces familiar waters, but now having to deliver the final version to seal fates.
Most notable to the song is the a capella bridge transitioning to an instrumental crescendo leading into the closing lyrics of the song. The guitar arpeggios and percussion providing an aural representation of the slamming of the door and the release of leaving toxicity. As soon as the bass enters into the second phrase of the interlude, the musical coda is formed and the emotional catharsis is in full effect.
Speaking to samples, however, is a whole other story. Artists I have enjoyed vary their implementation of samples from the derivative and untouched placement in a song to the other extreme, where proof of the audio engineering sequence is necessary to confirm the use of pre-recorded bytes. One of the most iconic plunderphonic albums, Since I Left You, is littered with thousands of samples. The song I have appreciated the most out of this assortment of bite-sized audio pieces is “Close to You”.
Few tracks on Since I Left You stay in one lane of beats-per-minute or style, and “Close to You” is no different. There are enough videos and sample breakdown entities on the internet to help you dissect this album and so many others regarding samples used. To highlight the title of “Close to You”, the vocal snippet from Nancy Wilson’s “Tonight May Have to Last Me All My Life” is pitch-shifted. A keen eye will see the Nancy Wilson song was also used on a couple other tracks of Since I Left You.
A familiar tune transposed to fit the mood or an artist's rite of passing, the covers we hear and love stand out amongst the rest. The mental call-back to both the past and present, the re-imagined transcendence of borrowed foundation, or the stripped-down acoustic and vocal interplay; all showcase musicians inspired by musicians. Notable variants of original works are in our musical vernacular today and will continue to do so as the number of popular melodies reaches their physical limits.