Sunday, May 15, 2011

Cover Thursdays - Leonard Cohen edition

[NOTE: This post did originally appear on a Thursday (May 12, to be exact), but has since been "moved" following the blogger spaz out over the weekend. Just in case you were wondering. Glad we got that out of the way.]

I'm all kinds of short on time right now, so unfortunately this is going to be an fairly light treatment of a notably complex artist: Leonard Cohen.

His quintessentially understated singer-songwriter style may not be to everyone's taste, but as a musical poet he is all but unmatched. You would find little opposition to the claim that he is among the top two Jewish(-born) lyricists to emerge from the 1960s folk scene -- which, of course, would place him high in the running for the title worldwide and for all of time. The other claimant to the throne being a certain Robert A. Zimmerman. (At least that was the handle his loving parents gave him, but he never had much use it for himself...)

Like Dylan, Cohen has proved an irresistible inspiration for covers. The reasons, I would venture, are fairly straightforward and do not require deep analysis. Hypnotically simple melodies, profoundly beautiful lyrics that are endlessly evocative yet uncomplicated at the same time, and -- most controversially -- a sense that these songs could be improved by a different voice. It's hard to touch on this last aspect without further explanation. I'll try and be blunt: I believe that other artists have felt "comfortable" singing the songs of Dylan and Cohen because they sensed that they had an advantage in the vocal department.

How wrong they were. The litany of wretched attempts to "cover" a Dylan or Cohen song is testament to this hubris. However, even the underlying notion that there was something that needed improving was misguided from the outset. It does not matter, for example, that Dylan was never the vocal equivalent of Donovan, or even Eric Burdon. That wasn't the issue. Rather, it was about crafting songs that played to his own abilities and strengths. More to the point, find me someone that has come close to singing "Ring Them Bells" as perfectly as Bob Dylan's original cut and I'll eat my words. (Sufjan Stevens, for one, had to reduce the song to a strange carnival jingle to even get it out the door.)

But enough about Bob. This is a post about Leonard Cohen and I should say right now that I do not consider them to be anything near equals in terms of vocal ability, let alone tenor. I was just trying to illustrate the point that it's easy to overlook how central Cohen's voice has been to his music. And, yes, how good it is even. A suitably great paragraph by the brilliant George Starostin, discussing Cohen's debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen:
Me, I happen to be more attracted to Cohen for the hypnotizing sound of his voice rather than the deep mesh of symbolism in the actual lyrics, and so for me, Songs is the freshest and henceforth the quintessential Cohen to own. The melodies are, of course, the weakest part: simplistic, almost identical, tune after tune, all of them lightly strummed on an acoustic guitar which the man could never even master on a Bob Dylan level, let alone Nick Drake. But then he never really tried, either; being a visionary, for Cohen, never implied being a musician as well. It didn't imply being a singer, either, although Songs certainly show that any complaints you occasionally hear about the man's voice are grossly overrated. Instead of singing, he goes for what I'd call 'melodic declamation', softly, silkily purring out his words the way a classic European "bard", be he French or Russian, would always do if he accepted the fact that it was a long way from out there to Shalyapin. But those few notes that he does 'sing', in a way, he sings decently, without getting out of tune; he knows his limitations and he doesn't try to jump over them and get whacked by the cross-bar.
Right, so with those notes out of the way, let's get down to it... because there certainly have been some brilliant Cohen covers over the years despite the many pitfalls. To highlight the obvious example, Jeff Buckley's take on "Hallelujah" may be the most achingly beautiful rendition of another artist's creation in the history of modern music. However, I've somewhat less lofty ambitions here. Let's just try and go for something novel that you might not have heard of, okay?

1) This first little find comes via G.R. (Poncey to his mates) on Twitter yesterday.[*] The Lemonheads (featuring Liv Tyler nogal) sink their teeth gently into "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye":

2) Next, an oldie that my dad used to break out every so often... Judy Collins slips into "Suzanne".

[And you thought the first video's "picture" was bad...]

My old man reckons that this is the best version of "Suzanne" out there and, while I personally much prefer the original, I felt that I had to include it here... If for no other reason than the fact that I need to wrap this up now and get back to work! [UPDATE: Some controversy in the comments here, as the old boy claims he always held Nina Simone's cover as the best. Now, this one may actually top the original.]

Anyway, hope you enjoy these two and feel free to add any suggestions of your own...

[*] In fact, I would be lying if that wasn't what prompted today's Leonard Cohen theme in the first place! Well, that, and the fact that another friend, Bloomsboy, had already made Cohen's presence explicit in the first Cover Thursdays post here at The Corral. Quoting the late Stephen Watson: "Whenever an artist chooses to appropriate the work of another, he is obliged to both adapt it and improve it. One example where I think this was achieved is in Leonard Cohen's appropriation of Federico Garcia Lorca's poem Little Viennese Waltz."


  1. Not taken by that Judy Collins cover of Suzanne at all! Give me Peter Gabriel or Nick Cave any day of the week above that syrupy tripe.

  2. Dave,

    Look, I'm not saying that it's the *best* thing I've ever heard... but:

    1) When I thought about perfect artists to cover Cohen, Nick Cave immediately sprung to mind. However, his version of Suzanne is disappointingly lacklustre IMHO.
    2) LC apparently felt quite different about Collins' contribution himself. In fact, he thought her good enough to sing a duet version of the song. So, yes, it is "syrupy", but come on: she has an amazing voice.[*]
    3) If those defences don't grab you, let me say that I wrote this post in a rush and needed to get something down, dammit!

    [*] She also does a stirring rendition of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" if anyone's interested...

  3. It gives me great comfort and solace that, despite making face-to-face (or ear-to-ear) conversations impossible by moving all over the world, that you would take the time to talk such well rounded sense about topics as vitally important as Leonard Cohen, covers.. ag just everything. Although I learnt something and agree with your views implicitly, it was also a most well written and entertaining post. Bravo!

    I don't care for the ecos malarky much, but this is very close to the home for me.

    Have you heard Steve Earls singing My Back Pages? The best Dylan cover that I have heard for very similar reasons to those you touched on in your post. Of course the 'Hallelujahs' for Dylan are also quite obvious - knockin' on heavens door, all along the watchtower etc. Earls - interesting bloke by the by - works something magic from a song I didn't have too much time for.

    Keep the posts coming Stickman.

  4. Thanks the endorsement, Poncey!

    Haven't heard this Steve Earls cover that you mention, but I'm about to rectify that as we speak. Hopefully do my studying brain some good...

  5. 1. Nina Simone sang the best version of Suzanne.
    2. I prefer Steven Tyler to Liz!

  6. Your mother is right and you are wrong Stickman. I always said that Nina Simone's version of Suzanne was the best I'd ever heard. I like the Judy Collind version very much too thoiugh. Dave? Syrupy tripe???!!! Don't you recognise a pure voice when you hear one. Poncey I must agree with your views on the ecos malarky though. Having problems getting to sleep? Juat start reading some of the stuff on this blog

  7. Okay, look, I have an exam in about two hours so can't get dragged into this right now. Two quick points for you old timers in the meantime, though!

    a) The Nina Simone version is, of course, very nice... but I'm sticking to my guns on you singling out the Judy Collins version. To be fair, you may have been (read: probably were) drinking at the time, so your enthusiasm might have been, uh, overstated.

    b) Proof-reading, man!
    "I like the Judy Collind version very much too thoiugh."
    How can my loyal reader(s) take me seriously when they see my family mocking the keyboard like this?? (Typing with two fingers is not an excuse.)

  8. Missed "juat" then, did you, proof-reading man?

  9. Just listened to the Lemonheads version of "Hey that's no way to say goodbye". Sublime.
    Stickman can you find and post a version of Nina Simone's version of Suzanne on this thing? Beyond the capabilities of paterfamilias the technological dinosaur I'm afraid. Also as the only version I have is on vinyl it's a long time since I listened to it

    Nina Simone. I rest my case

  11. Ya, it's very good... And quite easily the most inventive of the covers listed here.

    Sad truth: Nina Simone could read names out of the telephone book and still bring more artistry to the party than 99% of the stuff that I hear on popular radio today.

  12. Sometimes when I need cheering up I just come back and re-read this exchange.

  13. Can it be over 3 years since this exchange took place!! Here is another cove that I've just heard - local this time. Karen Zoid and Zolani Mahola from Freshly Ground. Worth listening to.


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