Judging a lasting song by its covers

Today's re-recorded tunes are tomorrow's standards

May 29, 2002|By Joan Anderman | Joan Anderman,BOSTON GLOBE

Imagine it's the year 2025. You're in an upscale lounge, and in the mood for some vintage tunes. Nothing like a night soaking up the standards. Remember real music? The band plugs in, cranks up the volume and plays a scorching version of - What?

"All Apologies," perhaps? Nirvana's 1993 grunge anthem has already been covered by Herbie Hancock, Sinead O'Connor and someone named Dr. Zaius in a cocktail-music style.

Maybe it will be Sting's "Fragile," which has been recorded 26 times by everyone from Julio Iglesias and Kenny Barron to Isaac Hayes and the Ballroom Band.

Or possibly "Sweet Child O' Mine," the Guns N' Roses rocker that, strangely enough, has inspired six versions, including one on a collection of lullabies.

Songs that define a cultural moment, songs with an unforgettable melody, songs that the most people loved - all of those qualities contribute to a song's staying power. Or not. It's no secret how mercurial the world of pop music is. The great songwriter Nick Drake is a shadowy cult figure, and ABBA is the toast of Broadway. Go figure.

It's impossible to predict with any certainty what musicians will want to play, and what listeners will want to hear, a half-century from now. Music from the Great American Songbook - the Gershwins, Cole Porter and their contemporaries - has remained a vital source for jazz artists and pop singers. As far as the rock canon goes, Lennon and McCartney's "Yesterday" is the most frequently covered song so far. Exact numbers are elusive, but a search on the Web site www.all music.com shows more than 500 different recorded versions of the Beatles ballad.

There are scant few sure bets; one of them is that the Beatles will endure. The band's music is the indisputable essence of modern pop; more to the point, they were simultaneously the best at what they did and the most popular, too. Bob Dylan won't be fading into memory any time soon. Neither will the best-known tunes by the titans of classic rock: Hendrix, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Who.

But at the turn of the millennium, a new indie-oriented canon is beginning to emerge - heralded by an unconventional and immensely respectable generation of pop and jazz artists who embrace the fundamental qualities of a great song, but are tuned into contemporary sensibilities. For them, the pull might be as ephemeral as a brilliant texture - or as studied as the wish to tap into retro chic.

Tori Amos' most recent album, Strange Little Girls, is a high-concept collection of songs written by men about women, among them Eminem, Depeche Mode and the Velvet Underground. Cat Power, a Southern-bred singer-songwriter who is establishing herself as a remarkable interpreter of other people's songs, released an all-covers disc in 2000 featuring the music of Moby Grape, Smog, the Stones and Michael Hurley, among others. Alt-rock hero Mark Eitzel's forthcoming release, Music for Courage and Confidence, graciously reinvents such diverse tracks as Glen Campbell's hit "Gentle on My Mind" and Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me."

"It's really all about the melody," says Eitzel, summing up the sentiments of many artists asked how they choose their material.

"But the thing about pop music is sometimes the melody is in the bass part - or the drum rhythm," says Steven Bernstein, founder of the New York jazz ensemble Sex Mob, best known for its audacious deconstruction of rock songs. Among Sex Mob's live show staples are James Bond themes, ABBA's "Fernando," and "Sign `O' the Times" by Prince - whose music is covered by a range of musicians as broad as the artist's body of work, among them Patti Smith (who just recorded "When Doves Cry"), Alicia Keys ("How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore?") and jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman, who included the same song on 1998's Timeless Tales [for Changing Times], a collection of songs by distinguished pop composers.

The `inner jukebox'

Contemporary jazz artists flock to rock music that mirrors the adventurous spirit and the structural ingenuity of their genre. Pianist Jason Moran, who recently recorded Bjork's "Joga," is one of this group of young jazz musicians - trained in conservatories and weaned on pop, rap and R&B - who are in a unique position to carry today's rock songs into the future.

"It doesn't matter how popular a song is," says Moran. "If so, then Britney Spears would last 40 years. For me and my generation, '80s kids, we have less respect for music because we were there when sampling started. You could take snippets of a Funkadelic groove and combine that with the Doors and have your beat. Bjork has these ambient sounds, these messy mixtures, and that's the same way I look at my music."

"The songs I grew up singing and hearing are the ones I want to claim and give my voice to," says jazz vocalist Nora York. "I sing [the Rolling Stones'] `Ruby Tuesday' in the first person. And it's those songs that capture my audience. It's like a collective inner jukebox."

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