Saturday, April 23, 2011

Cover-versies: 'Dear God' by Sarah Maclachlan

I was listening to Brian Ibbot's excellent podcast Coverville this morning. It's a great twice-sometimes-thrice weekly show about, you know, cover songs--and I love me cover songs. A great cover of a song serves, much like a great remake of a movie or a theatrical production of a classic play, to illuminate and/or transform the original, giving us new insight into the artifact. In some rare cases, a cover of an awful song can raise that original up, revealing nuances the first artist either could not or would not explore.

Of course, sometimes that isn't always the case. And this is where Cover-versies come into play.

Getting back to the podcast....the episode I was listening to was the first part of the 2010 Coverville Countdown. And, amongst such gems as the version of 'Start Me Up' by The Folksmen (the surreal moment of my hero Harry Shearer intoning the salacious words of Mick Jagger as if he was Pete Seegar is, was the Sarah MacLachlan version of XTC's 'Dear God.' And, as always when I listen to that version, it bugged the crap out me.

Y'see, I know a lot of people who praise the MacLachlan version as being the superior one. And I can't disagree more. But before I get into it, let's look at the original by Andy Partridge and XTC...
This was originally intended as a B-Side for XTC's 1986 album, Skylarking...but apparently, American DJ's picked up on the song and gave it so much airplay that Virgin Records pulled the original version of the album to put it on in place of 'Mermaid Smile.' Even though it begins gently, this is a brutal song, a discourse about confronting religion and trying to coalesce it with your faith...and having to consider the fact that maybe they can't be reconciled. Even though it begins with the typical beautiful XTC string arrangements and a sweet boy singing, it rapidly becomes a railing against the storm, helped massively by the vocals of Andy Partridge. I know there are some people who might not care for Partridge's somewhat ungainly tones, but the emotion in his voice is raw and powerful--and I will always take a singer who is less classically trained but wears his emotions on his sleeve than one who studied at Juilliard any day.

So almost ten years later, in 1995, Sarah MacLachlan covers this song for the tribute album Testimonal Dinner: A Tribute To XTC. Here is a fan-made video with a woman named Kellie overacting....
You'll notice a couple of differences right off the bat....the changing of the arrangement to something jazzier, the slowing down of the tempo, the presence of a number of instruments that weren't there before (Hello, piano! How you doin', woodwinds?), the subtle-but-still-there treatment of MacLachlan's vocals, the removal of the slow build to make her outburst towards the end all the more dramatic. Maybe it's me, but all the alterations seem to take the savage bite out of the song, turning it into something, well safer. And the fact that MacLachlan's vocals never quite leave the range she sets up in the initial stanza without the producer fiddling with the gain nob blunts the arc of the song itself. In XTC's version, there's a whole passage where Partridge seems to be conspiring with the Creator (it comes at roughly the two minute, eight second mark), trying to cozy up to him to get him to admit that what he believes about him is the truth...only for that strategy to break down into his last bit of rage. That arc isn't in the MacLachlan version--it's all smoothy-cool-breeze jazzhands, her vocals remaining steady before BAM!, here comes the distortion and the echo to make Sarah sound like a monster, and it. just. doesn't. work. Even the way she tries to out-eccentric Partridge on some phrases--the way her voice consciously 'cracks' at the moments where Partridge tries to conspire--seem calculated.

The XTC version of 'Dear God' is sung from the point of view of a man who's been beaten down and has had Enough, railing and ranting and giving notice that he won't allow these things to stand. The Sarah MacLachlan version is sung from the point of view of a woman who reads about terrible tragedies in the paper, whines about it to her pomo friends in the Williamsburg bistro she hangs out in and decides to write a song in support with money she borrowed from her parents. The original is the better version.

Deal with it.

What cover songs would you like to see contrasted with their original? Let me know.

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