I’ve been an Elton John fanatic for a long time (I think it goes without saying I’m also obsessed with Bernie Taupin), and for all of us super fans, this has been a year of mixed emotions. Hearing Elton announce his last tour was not totally unexpected, but he’d been doing shows for so long it started to feel like maybe retirement wasn’t an inevitability. Alas, all good things must come to an end.
Thankfully, the release of two Elton cover albums gave me something to look forward to, and since Friday I have been listening to both albums non-stop. I’m always excited/nervous when someone covers an Elton song, and I’d consider myself very hard to impress with a cover of something I already consider so close to perfection. I’m happy to report that I was very pleasantly surprised by many of the tracks on Revamp and Restoration (does anyone else keep accidentally calling it Reconstruction?? ). This week I’ll provide a track-by-track review of Revamp, the pop star-studded tribute to the Rocket Man, and next week I’ll look at the Nashville-centric Restoration.
Bennie and the Jets – Elton John/Pink/Logic. I think it’s brilliant that the first few seconds of the cover album featured a tweaked sample of none other than Elton himself. It sounded so gritty, I kept hitting rewind to hear it again. I also thought this track was overall a creative reimagining of the song, and I liked Pink’s simple vocal choices. She did not over do it, which showed a great dose of restraint and reverence for Elton. I also loved the line from Logic’s rap “Elton John, the greatest of all time.” This song felt like a fitting tribute by two people who obviously love Sir Elton. Grade: B+
We All Fall in Love Sometimes – Coldplay. This was one track that, unfortunately, didn’t really resonate at all. It’s a song of Elton’s that I absolutely love, and I don’t hate Coldplay, but this song felt melancholy in the most boring way. To me, the original is a whistful and heartfelt reflection on unrequited love (many say Bernie lovingly wrote it about Elton’s deepening but unreturned feelings for him), and this version sounded more like a cold and heartbroken dirge. Chris Martin’s typical depressing vocals didn’t do anything for me, and I thought they lost the spirit of the original. I hoped for a better recreation of such an amazing track. Grade: D
I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues – Alessia Cara. Wow. This little song-bird’s fans are slightly (much) younger than yours truly, but I found myself wanting to go download all of Alessia’s music. On first listen, I loved the bluesy tone of her voice and the thoughtful reworking of the vocal melody. She punched up so many lines with splendid effect, and the horns and cabaret piano backing her felt simply perfect. She also gets major props for not changing gender pronouns, which is one of my biggest pet peeves in covers. As I reflected on this track, I found myself thinking that Alessia’s cover reminded me of something Amy Winehouse might have contributed to this album if she were still with us. I’m just happy we have a modern singer who can hold a candle to the dearly departed songstress. Grade: A+
Candle in the Wind – Ed Sheeran. I think Ed doing this song was a great pairing. He kept it very simple and has a stunning voice, as always. What caught me a little off guard was the harmony in the chorus. Changing the harmony wasn’t necessarily the problem, even though I did find my ear straining so hard to stop expecting the original harmony, which is famous as harmonies go. I thought Ed’s version was just a little bit too much and too heavy, with too many layers of his own voice. It felt a little “house of mirrors” in that effect and made an otherwise lovely song feel a little bit clunky. Other than that, I really liked it. Grade: B
Tiny Dancer – Florence + the Machine. Hold the phone. This might be my favorite track on the album. I think it was another solid pairing, and I appreciated that the vocals were 100% Florence Welch. Her inflections and tone are one of a kind, and they fit perfectly in a song that is meant to be very ethereal. The sound effects and backing vocals helped support the softness of the verses as they steadily built into the impressive and delightful crescendo of the chorus. It reminded me of the first time I saw the Tiny Dancer scene in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, simply magic. Grade: A+
Someone Saved My Life Tonight – Mumford and Sons. This was a really good attempt, and I love Marcus Mumford’s ability to recreate a song, a la the Basement Tapes project. However, I found this track to be a little drab and devoid of some of the power Elton and Bernie brought to the original. In essence, this is a song of triumph and immense gratitude, but Mumford’s version felt more like someone who was regretfully looking back on a failed relationship. I would have liked this song better if Mumford stayed true to their folk roots- maybe it would have fit better on Restoration as a more strings-based folk song. The best part of this song is the ending, which layers the vocals and music in a very interesting way to bring it home. Although, even then I was annoyed that they changed the lyrics of “paying your HP demands forever.” C’mon guys, if someone doesn’t understand that ancient reference, they can google it. Grade: C+
Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word – Mary J. Blige. This track is very cool. I’m not sure it’s the first song that would have come to mind for Mary J. to cover, but it is an original retake of a famed classic. I felt she conveyed the emotions of the song convincingly, and it also made you want to dance. The vocals were solid, and the track overall is great, but it’s just not that interesting. I guess there was a moment of excitement or emotion I was looking for that didn’t come. Grade: B-
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart – Q-tip and Demi Lovato. I felt pretty much the same about this song as I did about the original. It’s fun to listen to and impossible not to sing along with, but it’s just not a heavy hitter among EJ songs, in my opinion. I did think this version was well done with new notes and twists, and it still managed to keep the same energy as the original, which is one of the best parts of the song. I thought it was a great new take on a fun song, it’s just harder to get excited about than some of the other tracks on the album. Grade: B
Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters – The Killers. I hate that what was otherwise a good vocal performance was clouded by so many strange sound effects. I really love the Killers, but this cover didn’t sound at all like their style or anything true to the original, so I was confused by the decision to feature these heavy, industrial sound effects. I found myself wishing someone like Bruno Mars with more compelling vocals and a more interesting style tackled this cover. I don’t totally dislike it, I just thought it could have been much better. Grade: C-
Daniel – Sam Smith. So beautiful and whistful, exactly as this song is meant to be. Sam Smith was a perfect choice for this song, and he brought to it a heartfelt tenderness that I think Elton and Bernie would admire. It’s not hard to work with a tune that started out so perfect, and I think the biggest risk in this one would be overdoing it. I was blown away by how powerful the restrained vocals and music were. Some many say this tune didn’t do anything “new” to the track, but I think it is actually softer and more poignant than the much more cabaret original. Grade: A
Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me – Miley Cyrus. Miley pulls a double hitter, putting tracks on both Revamp and Restoration, and I think she did both of them pretty well. This one captured her beautiful vocals very nicely, and I think she made appropriate changes to the vocal pattern to suit her style. She sounded great and managed to not get weird. If anything, the one element of the song I felt was missing was the power of the crescendo at the end. Miley’s version had a steady power throughout and missed that subtle build up to a fire cracker finish. Grade: B
Your Song – Lady Gaga. I’m sad to say that this might have been the biggest let down for me, but probably only because both Lady Gaga and Your Song are so dear to my heart. This pairing got me excited, as I naturally expected perfection. Let me say, it’s not a bad cover at all. In fact, Gaga’s vocals at the end gave me goosebumps. I struggled mainly at the beginning of the song. What was that accent? Also, of all people, she changed the gender pronouns, which obviously made me bristle. I think the biggest thing that was missing in Gaga’s vocal performance was the understated innocence of this humble tale of falling in love. There was no vulnerability, it was all power. I thought it was enjoyable enough to listen to, but I thought she missed the mark on the emotion of the song. Still…that ending earns some major points, much like the finale of Ewan McGregor’s expert cover of this song in Moulin Rouge. If she had built up to the ending with a softer start, I think it would have been much more compelling. Grade: B
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road – Queens of the Stone Age. You know, this track has gotten some hate, but I really enjoyed it. Sure it is super 70s, and sure Sara Barellies does a much better and more original version, but this cover isn’t bad and is interesting in its own right. I thought the styling of the song was fun without being over the top, and they let the lyrics speak for themselves. With a song this beloved, not overcomplicating things is a great goal for any cover. Also, I love how anyone who sings this song ends up saying “a couple of vodkar and tonics” – you just can’t help pronouncing it like Elton did, and I’m glad Queens didn’t try. Quite enjoyable to hear, actually. Grade: B