Iron & Wine- Smokestack Lightnin’ (Howlin’ Wolf cover)
I’ll admit that not only do I love good covers, I’m especially fond of the way Sam Beam covers songs. The first time I saw him play live, he did a solo acoustic cover of an old Sugarcubes song, and if someone can cover 80s Björk with an acoustic guitar and make it their own, that’s pretty cool.
Of course, anybody who’s paying attention (and there may be one or two of you) has noticed that I post a large number of covers to this page. For some, I guess, cover songs aren’t very appealing. They’re derivative, in a way, and cover bands are generally the sort of things you listen to while drinking for sport. Maybe that’s a necessity.
I maintain that covering a song effectively is one of the higher means of expression, and doing it well is quite a challenge. My favorite artists have made a decent amount of their careers by working with established material. The challenge is always making that material your own, taking something the audience will already know and recognize, and turning it into something distinct and original. The master of this craft is probably Johnny Cash, who covered everyone from Bob Dylan to Bob Marley to Nine Inch Nails. Other luminaries in the field include Cat Power, Iron & Wine, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, and perhaps the most nuanced of all of them, Mark Kozelek.
To some, I suppose it will always be anathema. When someone covers a song and significantly alters it, they feel either cheated or offended: cheated, in that they feel they were entitled to hearing the song in something approximating its original form, and offended, in that covering it and changing it is viewed (in my eyes, unfairly) as a negative criticism of the original. I will admit that there is something rather shocking in hearing Cat Power cover the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction with the chorus and guitar riff omitted.
To those who despise it, I don’t know what to say. I’ve heard the Stones’ original a million times, and I absolutely love it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a cover artist making it their own and bringing a different life to it. I will say that artists who cover it without doing so create works of questionable quality and ethos: ever heard Britney Spears cover that song? How about Justine Bateman?
I’ve digressed—suffice to say that I really like what Sam Beam has done with Howlin’ Wolf’s signature track here. No one is going to mistake it for the Wolf’s original, and it’s really fascinating to contemplate how much he has changed in the song without sacrificing the essence that made the original so good.