Nov 12, 2011

Second Verse, Same as the First

I'm kind of getting into a groove with my writing/blogging lately.  By "a groove," I mean that I am more writing for myself than for the six people who read the blog.  I have often heard that writing needs to be practiced if you want to get really good at it.  And I have found that to be true - when I get out of the habit of writing, I have a harder time getting back into the swing of it.  I also think my writing is rougher when I get back into it.  So I'm pretty glad I am starting to get back into the swing.  (You may not be, but there are plenty other options out there for you.  Like THIS for example.  See, now I'm not such a bad option.)  Of course, me writing more often means that you will probably be subjected to my oft-threatened "Why Green Superheroes Don't Work on Screen" post.  Win some, lose some.

The other night, I was watching a riveting football game between national powerhouses (that was a lie - I was watching Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for the fiftieth time).  A commercial ran for Like Crazy - a movie starring Chekov from the new Star Trek movie that I will never even think about watching, even under duress.  In the background of the commercial, I heard a somewhat familiar song playing, but being sung by someone I hadn't heard before.  I did a quick Google search and found out it was Ingrid Michaelson singing "Can't Help Falling in Love" - alson known as "Fools Rush In."  I went ahead and got the song on iTunes and it was really good - a completely original version that really added some touching depth to the song.

It got me thinking.  I have four versions of that song in my iTunes library and really like all of them.  (There are probably several hundred takes on that song in existence.)  Do you have songs like that, where you have multiple versions that are equally entertaining?  I'm not really talking about Christmas songs.  I have nine versions of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," fourteen versions of "O Holy Night," twenty-one versions of "Silent Night."  There are only so many Christmas songs to record, so there is going to be a massive amount of duplication.  You have the same situation with hymns and praise songs.  I have multiple recordings of "Amazing Grace" and "Come Thou Fount" and "I Could Sing of Your Love Forever."  I'm talking about regular songs that have been recorded several times, but where the artist brings a fresh take to it each time.  I'm a sucker for remakes, especially really good ones or ones that salvage a cruddy song.  (Go listen to U2's version of Gloria Estafan's ridiculous "Everlasting Love" or Chris Daughtry's acoustic "Poker Face.") If an artist I like does a remake on some obscure album, I usually get it (find Coldplay's live take on REM's "Everybody Hurts").

It is pretty common to have two versions of a song.  Remakes happen frequently - especially in the age of shows like American IdolX Factor, and Glee (especially Glee).  But I think it is much more rare to have a song with three or more versions.  It is also hard to find songs that are uniquely and creatively remade.  Take "Unchained Melody."  Tons of people have done that song, but most of them aren't very original - they just sound like a bad karaoke version of The Righteous Brothers.  So I went through my iTunes library to find out which songs I had multiple versions of and decided to evaluate why in the world I own them all.
  • "Can't Help Falling in Love" - 4 versions - Elvis Presley, Bono, UB40, Ingrid Michaelson - This is one of those rare songs were each version is a winner.  Obviously, the original Elvis version is a classic.  Bono recorded his version for the movie Honeymoon in Vegas with Nic Cage, SJP, and James Caan (forgettable movie indeed).  It was beautiful, with Bono's falsetto floating in during the last third to add a tenderness that wasn't there in Presley's.  Right after that UB40 recorded the song for Sliver with Billy Baldwin and Sharon Stone.  (Okay, the song doesn't have a great movie track record.)  The reggae twist on the song almost transmits a joyfulness in the singer's inability to quit loving this person.  It isn't mourning or longing as much as professing love.  Then Michaelson's version is just incredible and lovely - full of aching and desperation missing in each other version.  I love all four.  
  • "For Once In My Life" - 3 versions - Frank Sinatra, Michael Buble, Stevie Wonder - Right off the bat, my problem is that I am sucker for Motown Stevie Wonder.  I think his version of this song is just amazing.  It is pretty special to have a song that can hold up to a Motown treatment and a too-cool Jazz version.  I'm not always the biggest Sinatra fan, but he does a decent job.  Buble is giving his version of Sinatra's version.  (When you get down to it, isn't Buble's entire career his version of Sinatra?)  To me, the Stevie song is by far the best take.
  • "Hallelujah" - 6 versions - Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, kd lang, Jason Castro, Rufus Wainright/John Cale - I'll admit it.  I never had heard of this song before Shrek.  I fell in love with it in the film (Cale's version).  The CD came with Wainright instead - another good version.  Then I got Jeff Buckley's absolute home run of a version - the one most people recognize.  Finally I purchased the Cohen original and kind of wondered how it had spawned so many remakes, unless people just were convinced they could do a better take on a beautifully written song.  Jason Castro has a surprisingly nice, but not groundbreaking, recording of it.  And kd lang's from the Winter Olympics is glorious.  This is one of those songs where all of them are going to be somewhat similar - haunting, moving, powerful.  There will be degrees of those things.  You probably won't hear a reggae version, thank goodness.  (Well, I won't buy it if there is one.) Personally, I would rank them Buckley, Cale, lang, Cohen, Rufus, Castro.  
  • "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" - 3 versions - BeeGees, Melinda Doolittle, Michael Buble - The last season of "American Idol" we really were into was Season Six.  I even got the CD at the end of the season, which is why you will see Idol versions of several songs.  This song is one of my favorites.  I love the BeeGees version.  It carries with it a level of sadness and pain that is not always evident in the disco loving group.  Buble's take is smoother, but it also incorporates the BeeGees falsetto throughout the last third - a nice move, I always felt.  Doolittle's song is stupid.  She refused to sing "how can a loser ever win" because she didn't like calling people losers.  That alone disqualifies the song.  She also sang it in her too-characteristic milquetoast style.  (I still think if she had embraced her inner Tina Turner she would have won.  Her best performances were the rocking ones.)  Admittedly, I don't have the Al Green version.  I'm probably missing out.  But I never claimed to be authoritative on music.  And his is over six minutes - a big dragged out.
  • "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" - 4 versions - Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye, Creedence Clearwater Revival, California Raisins - Another brilliant song.  I'm not a huge CCR fan and I am a HUGE Gladys Knight fan.  Even today, Gladys Knight could sing most divas under the table.  I think it is a riot when they bring her onto a show like Idol and she humiliates whoever it is she is supposed to duet with.  Then she kind of gives them a "nice try" look and walks off stage.  So you can guess where I land on this.  But, the Marvin Gaye version was also incredible.  I have a Motown Classics Gold album with the forty greatest Motown songs (not at all subjective).  It includes BOTH Knight's and Gaye's version - one right after another on the album.  That doesn't happen often.  The CCR version is fine with a nice Southern rock twist on the song.  But the real winner, obviously, is the California Raisins.   
  • "I Want You Back" - 3 versions - Jackson Five, The Waiting, Smokey Robinson - The Jackson Five version is awesome.  The Waiting version is fun.  The Smokey one is slow and too mellow - like a lot of Smokey's stuff.  Again, just my opinion.
  • "I'll Stand By You" - 3 versions - The Pretenders, Gina Glocksen, Glee - This is one of those "what the heck?" songs where having multiple versions don't make sense.  I never was a huge fan of The Pretenders version.  It was a bit much for me.  I got the Glocksen one on the aforementioned Idol CD.  It sounds like karaoke.  Then I got the Glee version on one of their CDs.  It was one of the dumber songs and one of the dumber sequences in the show.  Finn sang this to an ultrasound of his unborn child that wasn't really his.  Why do I have three versions of this?
  • "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" - 6 versions - Judy Garland, Straight No Chaser, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole (2 versions), Glee, Matthew Morrison and Gwyneth Paltrow - Here we go... This is probably the quintessential remake song.  Yes, I have six versions.  You have the original one made famous by Wizard of Oz.  Obviously a classic that has led to countless remakes and redos.  Then, along came Israel Kamakawiwo'ole and his absolutely brilliant Hawaiian ukelele version.  That completely changed the song.  The Straight No Chaser version is a mashup with Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours" that owes more to Iz's classic than Oz's.  Iz himself released two takes - one stand alone and one incredible mashup with "What a Wonderful World."  Then you have the Glee version that Matthew Morrison sang at the end of Season One.  I have to give Morrison credit; he did a good job.  It is basically a remake of Iz's take, complete with ukelele.  But Morrison's voice is less island, so it makes it a little blander.  His duet with Paltrow on his solo album is kind of a mashup of both the Oz and Iz versions.  It is good, but I don't think it is as good as the Glee version.  All in all, though, you have at least two very distinct takes on the same song that are both very good in their own right.  That puts it in the class of "Can't Help Falling in Love."
  • "Imagine" - 3 versions - John Lennon, Blake Lewis, Glee - This is where I get in trouble.  I hate this song.  I don't care if it is one of the most popular songs in history or that it was written by Lennon.  I hate it.  I have always hated it.  Part of it is that I don't like some of what it says.  I can get on board for prayers for world peace.  But Lennon puts out that the way to accomplish that is get rid of a whole bunch of stuff - including God and religion.  Obviously, that kind of hits close to home for me.  I did not purchase any of these versions - they came on collections that I wanted.  I'll move on before I get blasted by the pro-Imagine crowd.
  • "In Christ Alone" - 4 versions - Travis Cottrell (2 versions), Page CXVI, Avalon - Technically, this would fall into the praise and worship category.  But it is also a very good example of how different takes can completely alter a song.  The Avalon version of this song is the pretty standard version that has been heard in churches all over the country.  It is a good song with a great message and powerful emotion.  The Page CXVI is very low key and mellow.  Personally, I think it really robs the song of its power, but some people love it.  The Travis Cottrell version is incredible.  He mashes it up with "Solid Rock" and brings in a praise team.  I have two different live versions of his of the song.  Both are great and extremely moving.  One of the big challenges of praise music recordings is to make it recognizable, but also unique.  Cottrell definitely pulls that off.
  • "Jesus Freak" - 4 versions - dcTalk, dcTalk (live), dcTalk (lounge joke), Newsboys - It is perhaps dcTalk's most famous song - a great song.  I love it.  The live version is just a more frantic version of the album version.  When Michael Tait of dcTalk became lead singer of Newsboys, they recorded a version of it.  It sounds just like the dcTalk version, except with Tait doing all the voices - which actually hurts the song.  The only version that really brings any freshness was actually put on the Jesus Freak album as a joke.  It is a lounge singer version, which I have always thought was both hilarious and clever.  
  • "My Deliverer" - 3 versions - Rich Mullins, Ragamuffin Band, dcTalk - When Rich Mullins died, he had a very rough copy of his next album recorded on tapes.  It was truly a shame because it was an AMAZING album.  So, posthumously, the album was released on two CDs - the original rough recordings by Mullins and then fully recorded and mastered versions put out by his backing band and industry friends.  The song "My Deliverer" is just an incredible song.  I prefer Rich's original take, but the full album version is also very good.  It is more upbeat and polished, which doesn't actually help it.  When Prince of Egypt came out in theaters, dcTalk made a version of this song with the lyrics changed a bit to make it more about Moses than Jesus.  I never liked the lyric alteration, but the take itself is pretty good and unique.  It adds a rock flavor, which makes it more a celebration of victory.  Rich's original was quieter, like he was reminding himself that rescue was coming and to not give up.  Each subsequent version brought less of that wounded perspective.  I have always been partial to the original - but I also like the middle movie in most trilogies the best.  I'm weird.
  • "To Make You Feel My Love" - 5 versions - Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Garth Brooks, Adele (2 versions) - Another song where every version seems to be a complete home run.  Dylan's folk take, Joel's powerful 80's piano rock version, Brooks' country ballad, and Adele's Motown diva longing. I love all the versions of the song and each artist completely makes it their own (in the words of the Idol judges).  If you didn't know better, you would think that each artist wrote it.  I first heard Joel's song and thought it was his - until a friend corrected me about Dylan.  I had another friend who swore Brooks wrote it - until I corrected him about Joel and Dylan.  And there are people who swear that Adele wrote it.  It's one of those cases where the perfect person for each generation remade the song.  (Adele is really good at this - her version of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" absolutely nails it.)
  • "Somebody to Love" - 3 versions - Queen, George Michael, Glee - There is the Queen classic.  There George Michael trying to replace Freddie Mercury (impossible) with the rest of Queen in a decent, but subpar, version.  And there is Glee mangling the Queen version.  If anyone could have replaced Freddie Mercury, it would have been George Michael.  Which shows you just how awesome Mercury was.
  • "Sway" - 4 versions - Rosemary Clooney, Michael Buble, Melinda Doolittle, Glee - Yeah, I don't understand this one either.  I can't really identify which one is better.  They all are virtually the same take.  And all of them are pretty stupid.
  • "You Really Got Me" - 3 versions - Van Halen, Sanjaya Malakar, The Chipmunks - Speaking of stupid...  What a perfect way to end this examination.  Van Halen's song is hardly a classic.  But it is typical 80s David Lee Roth led Van Halen.  Then you have the complete trainwreck Sanjaya's inexplicably bad karaoke song that really could be used as punishment.  Then you have The Frigging Chipmunks putting out a take that would be considered torture by the Geneva Convention.  This song epitomizes the hit and miss nature of multiple song versions.  You have some songs that are like a framework that a talented artist can conform in any number of directions. Then you have some songs that are like trying to bend concrete.  
Those are what I have to offer.  Feel free to hit up the comments to list your favorite song with multiples - or to let me know which ones I missed.  

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