Cover Me

Over the weekend, I had a chance to listen to Phil Collins’ latest album. “Going Back” is a collection of Motown covers by Phil, backed up by some of the original Motown studio musicians. And it’s a pretty good listen. According to several interviews Phil’s given on the album, he tried his best to recreate the Motown sound and feel of the music, not bring his own interpretation and vision to the songs. I was interested because I’ve been a fan of Phil’s for a couple of decades now.

A bit of a diversion: I am a fan of Pop Phil and Edgy, Progressive Phil. I have little use for Whiny Phil, and can’t stand Disney Phil. My main affinity is for most of his Genesis work and his first few solo albums.

Anyway, this album isn’t the first time Phil’s done covers. In the 1980’s, he did versions of “Behind The Lines” (Genesis), “Tomorrow Never Knows” (Beatles), “You Can’t Hurry Love” (The Supremes), and “Groovy Kind Of Love” (The Mindbenders). And each time his version was different from the original — especially “Groovy,” which he slowed way down and made a very soulful, emotional piece.

This time, though, he checked his vision at the door. The album is a near-pitch-perfect Motown album; we have Phil’s vocals and drumming, but that’s it.

Which brings up a question: when you’re hearing a cover of a song, do you want to see how well the new artist can replicate the “look and feel” of the original, or do you want them to put their own impression on the piece?

I fall into the latter camp.

I want my artists to be themselves. I’m a fan of musicians not just for their abilities, but for what they do with them.

My favorite example of a near-perfect cover album is one I’ve mentioned before — George Martin’s “In My Life.” The former Beatles producer assembled a bunch of people — some not even musicians — to do covers of various Beatles tracks. Not one of the tracks will ever be imstaken for the original performance by the Fab Four, but they’re still great performances — and a large part of that greatness is that not only are the performers not the Beatles, but in many cases not musicians. Robin Williams and Bobby McFerrin hamming it up on “Come Together?” Delightful. Goldie Hawn turning “Hard Day’s Night” into a sultry, jazzy torch song? Sizzling. Jeff Beck’s searing instrumental of “A Day In The Life?” Stunning. Celine Dion’s passionate “Here, There, And Everywhere?” Surprisingly tolerable. Sir Sean Connery’s dramatic reading of “In My Life?” Melts nearly every woman I’ve played it for.

And here’s a heresy: I think Jim Carrey’s “I Am The Walrus” is actually better than the original. Judge for yourself: the guy brilliantly captures the sheer insanity of the song.

On the flip side, you also run the risk of getting things like this series — which I’ve also obtained, but for entirely different reasons. They’re so bad, they have a great value as sheer camp.

So yeah, Phil’s album is pretty good. But it’s a Phil Collins Motown album. It’s not Phil Collins’ version of Motown classics. And, judging what he’s done before, with “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Groovy Kind Of Love,” would have been something exceptional.

Update: Jim Carrey video replaced with a far, far better version that reader JOHND discovered.

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