Transformative Covers by Dr. Bill Sallak

Some covers of songs are tributes, honoring the song’s original performer (think of Nirvana’s unplugged version of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”). Some covers end up becoming definitive, all but literally erasing the original version (Aretha Franklin’s version of “Respect,” anyone?). And others seem to come out of some sort of desperation, like Elvis Costello’s All This Useless Beauty—an entire album of his own performances of songs that he wrote earlier in his career for other performers.

My favorite covers, though, are transformative—ones that show us something the original version never could.  Transformative covers demonstrate that a single composition is less like a painting than a prism, scattering different colors in different directions depending on who is holding it and how they’re handling it. Transformative covers are simultaneously old, and new, and borrowed. (And, like Peter Gabriel’s version of Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble,” they can definitely be blue.)

Here are some of my favorite transformative covers, paired with their “original” recordings. It’s a wide-ranging list: Marcin Wasilewski manages to make Bjork even more evocative (without the help of lyrics!); Vijay Iyer superimposes asymmetric South Indian rhythmic cycles on one of the King of Pop’s standby tunes; and The Bad Plus helps us discover that one of America’s thorniest, most dissonant 20th-century composers was also deeply, danceably funky. Enjoy.

By Dr. Bill Sallak

Bill Sallak is an Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he teaches percussion, recording technology, and world music. A member of the Akros Percussion Collective, he has worked closely with such composers as Stuart Saunders Smith, Tom DeLio, John Luther Adams, and Chris Shultis, and has performed with the Phoenix Symphony, Akron Symphony, and numerous regional musical theatre productions. As a recording engineer, he has served on the staff of the Interlochen Arts Center and KBAQ-FM (Phoenix, AZ), and has worked with the Pacifica String Quartet, Sharon Isbin, Paul Winter, Gerard Schwarz, Jung Ho Pak, and David Lockington.

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