They Right the Songs

Using a mix-and-match approach that evokes the deep-voiced, deep-hearted pith and passion of Greg Brown and the full-bodied rock flavor favored by the Canadian Invasion, a band called Crash Test Dummies achieves a uniqueness born of amalgamation. Very cool. Or, as they say in the press, very critically acclaimed. The band's deservedly hailed Arista debut, The Ghosts That Haunt Me, gets critics giddy with its buoyant melodies, bizarre arrangements, unpredictable lyrical configurations. Thanks in only small part to a relentless hype campaign, the lead single, "Superman's Song," has elicited raves from the industry anti-Bible Hits, major radio stations, Margo Timmons of Cowboy Junkies, and cast members of the old Man of Steel television show. Very cool.

But far from the coolest song on the album. The centerpiece of Ghosts, the only track you need to hear to know the Dummies matter, is "Androgynous," a smirky, quirky, and wholly potent gender bender rendered acoustically. Over sparkly mandolin riffs and a solid beat, Brad Roberts sings deeply and sincerely, "Here comes Dick, he's wearing a skirt/Here comes Jane you know she's sporting a chain/Same hair revolution/Same build evolution" in a salute to a world to come, wherein gender doesn't matter.

The Replacements ascended from garage bozos to America's Best Rock Band in 1984 behind a masterpiece LP called Let It Be. Over exploding but sparse (and out-of-tune) piano chords and sand-block riffs, Paul Westerberg sang roughly and sincerely about "Something meets boy/Something meets girl/Both look the same/They're overjoyed in this world." Same song. Same overwhelming emotional effect. Twice in seven years.

"I heard the original on a compilation a friend made for me," explains Brad Roberts. "It was a very bare-bones presentation, little more than off-the-cuff vocals, out-of-tune piano, and a jazzy snare brush, very stripped down. But even at that level, I thought it worked very powerfully. The melody is quite compelling. We thought that if it could sound so damn good in a minimalist way, surely it could survive a Crash Test Dummies rearrangement. So we hammered away at it, and by the time all was said and done, our own version was very much a radical departure from the original. It was sounding very much like one of our tunes. It had gone through this transformation that we were quite pleased with, and so we chose to put it on our record. I should be careful about this, so as not to offend Westerberg fans. We haven't taken the song over, and I'm not suggesting we could assume responsibility for the song's strength, because that's all Paul."

There are two sides of the cover coin: coolness vs. appropriation. "I'm not concerned about that in the case of `Androgynous,'" Roberts responds. "It's a strong song that stands on its own. But it can be interestingly represented in an alternative fashion. We were careful to put only one cover on the album. When we play live, we have a couple of others thrown in for good measure, but we keep them to a minimum, and make sure they're something we've significantly reworked, and made our own."

Since the dark and noisy night rock and roll was born, cover songs have played a major role in the genre. In the Fifties, when Americans were even stupider than they are now, white artists would record softened versions of songs by black artists so the tunes could be sold to white (large) audiences. No self-respecting (his mistake) white man would give an ear to a single by one of those crazy damn colored boys like Fats Domino or Little Richard. But if Pat Boone recorded a milquetoast version of the same song....

In the modern era, covers often serve as crutches for artists who lack original resources. After Vanilla Ice melted the charts with his first hit, he reached deep into his songwriting intellect to compel the masses via Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music White Boy" and the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction." Tricky business, these covers. But aberrations aside, remakes often achieve a greatness equal to - or beyond - that of the originals. Here're our selections for the all-time Top 40 coolest cover songs:

40. "MacArthur Park" by Donna Summer
Trivia: This, not "Love to Love You Baby," which only made it to number two, was Summer's first chart topper. More important, this version of Jimmy Webb's bad trip works because it placed Donna's rock voice in a disco-music forum. Good recipe.

39. "Paint It Black" by the Feelies
Like a Rolling Stone? Not really, and that's its strength.

38. "Que Sera Sera" by Sly and the Family Stone
Sly does Doris. Or so rumor had it.

37. "Cruella De Ville" by the Replacements
Anything lifted from 101 Dalmatians is automatically cool.

36. "Let There Be Rock" by Henry Rollins
If AC/DC are Satanists, what does that make Hank Rollins?

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Greg Baker