How tiny we are, girl, how tiny we are...
The generally splendid new Raconteurs album "Consolers of the Lonely" includes one song I don't really like. Its a cover of Terry Reid's "Rich Kid Blues". Now, the original is a great song by a man with one of the best white soul voices of the 1960s. So to say I don't like the cover is a little imprecise. I just don't see the point of it, so slavish is it in its aping of the original. It's virtually a bar band cover and I expect far more than that from Jack White. When the White Stripes cover something they transform it, they make it sound like a White Stripes song. It seems inconceivable that Dolly Parton can have had anything to do with "Jolene" after White has had his way with it. It sounds like a White Stripes original.
Maybe the problem here, then, is that the Raconteurs have a less distinctive sound than the White Stripes. Maybe their blending of various 60s and 70s styles is just a touch more anonymous.
But I don't think so.
I think White just loves the Reid song, and he wanted to do it and Reid justice, and so he did it the way that Reid had done it.
Which is the problem. I like a cover version to be a rereading of a song, a different approach, different flesh on the same skeleton.
The Raconteurs perform a number of covers live - Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy", Bowie's "It Ain't Easy", Sonny Bono's "Bang Bang" and "Teenage Kicks" by the Undertones. These are all classics of one vintage or another, and the band does each of them justice (you can find most of them on Youtube, of course), generally by playing them all really loud and really hard. Perhaps their strangest cover, though, is "Floating", a song by Jape.
Unless you're into Irish Indie music or a rabid Raconteurs fan, you probably haven't heard of Jape. He's a Dublin singer-songwriter who used to play with David Kitt and performs a similar brand of electro-folk pop. He's released a couple of records in Ireland on Indie labels. Kitt covered one of his songs a few years ago. "Floating" (from the "The Monkeys in the Zoo Have more Fun than Me" album) is obviously the best thing he's ever done, with its circling melody, its simple yet acute lyric and its almost epic synthesized build towards its conclusion. How the Raconteurs ever ended up performing it live I'm not sure. I read somewhere that Brendan Benson heard it, loved it, and incorporated it into their shows. It seems a great example of the power of the Internet as a medium for music, as the Internet (and more specifically, MySpace) is the most likely way an American Power-Pop star would come into contact with a song by an obscure Irish songwriter.
Anyway, the Raconteurs thoroughly Americanise the song, making it bigger and heavier and louder, chiefly by adding guitars, fuzz and feedback aplenty. White often turns the introductory riff into an extended solo before returning to the melody, and adds a later, longer solo. The backbeat is toughened up from the weedy, willowy original. Nevertheless, the version is remarkably faithful to the original, in spirit at least, with Benson sticking to the lyric and the melody. Its an improvement, in a way, on the Jape version, and it should have been the cover they included on the new record instead of "Rich Kid Blues". But it wasn't, and unless they lazily do a covers album at some point, we'll probably never hear an official version. Which would be a great shame.
The Raconteurs version: