10 Artists Who Covered Themselves

Robert Ham

By Robert Ham

on 02.25.15 in Features

Some artists simply can’t leave well enough alone. Late last year marked the release of a new EP by electronic artist Jon Hopkins wherein he turns four tracks from his dense techno 2013 album into sleepy drone experiments, as well as King of the Sun/King of the Midnight Sun, a double album by Australian punk pioneers the Saints, on which they record the same set of songs twice: once as ornate pop, and again as gritty rock.

It’s a strange compulsion, but not an unusual one. Plenty of bands and artists have had the itch to improve upon, play with and upturn their work for reasons both personal and commercial. While we don’t have the space to discuss every incident, here are 10 of the more interesting examples of this kind of remaking/remodeling.

Shania Twain, Up!

Twain and producer/co-songwriter Robert John “Mutt” Lange didn’t just hope for another crossover success for the Canadian singer’s 2002 LP Up!, they damn near demanded it. They concocted three versions of the same album, each one color-coded and aimed at a different market. The “green” version emphasized her country roots by cranking up the banjo and fiddle, while the “red” version laid on the synths and drum machines for pop radio. The “blue” version, though, was the most interesting, with the songs recast as Bollywood film music with help from U.K. producer DJ Swami.

Ornette Coleman, In All Languages

For this 1987 double album, Coleman recorded a batch of new material with both his classic quartet (including Charlie Haden and Don Cherry) that launched his storied career in the late ’50s, and Prime Time, his then-current group that boasted two guitarists, two bassists and two drummers. Obviously the bands sounds very different, but the greatest contrast comes from hearing Coleman sound almost relaxed working with his old buddies while a marked tension and aggression took over with the modern band.

Destroyer, Notorious Lightning and Other Works

When Dan Bejar toured in support of his 2004 LP Your Blues (just reissued in December 2014), he chose the art-rock outfit Frog Eyes as his backing band, forcing him to adapt the MIDI-heavy songs for a traditional bass/drums/guitar format. The move was such a successful one that the quintet recorded a quick EP of these reworkings. Captured in all their derelict glory, the reedy synth tones give way to a welcome guitar racket and the freaked out vocals of Frog Eyes frontman Carey Mercer.

Nico, Drama of Exile

There’s no agreed-upon explanation for why two versions of this 1981 album exist. According to one source, the original tapes were stolen, forcing the former Velvet Underground singer to re-record them; another says legal issues over ownership of the original recordings pushed her back into the studio. Whatever the case, the two sessions produced markedly different takes on these songs, with the earlier versions sounding steely-eyed and fierce and those from just a month later come off frayed and unkempt.

Eric Andersen, ‘Bout Changes ‘n’ Things

Bob Dylan’s influence was, perhaps, a little too strong with Eric Andersen. When he recorded this album in 1966, the Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter mimicked the harmonica, acoustic guitar and political folk leanings of his idol. And when he heard Dylan go electric, he did an about-face and re-recorded this whole album a year later with a taut rhythm combo that, admittedly, put some much-needed meat on the bare bones of his anti-war anthems and pleas to the girls that got away.

N.E.R.D., In Search Of…

On the 2001 U.K. edition of this debut album by the band featuring Neptunes members Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo and Shay Haley, the trio stuck close to their futuristic dance-pop aesthetic. Somewhere along the way, though, they decided it was necessary to keep the sound separate from their work behind the scenes, and re-recorded the backing tracks as limber funk-rock with help from Minneapolis group Spymob for the U.S. release. While both editions are fine, a truly great album could be made combining the best moments from each.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Plays Greatest Palace Music

Before he dubbed himself Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Will Oldham recorded dozens of stark country-folk tunes as Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Music or Palace Songs. Using his new name, Oldham re-recorded 15 of those efforts using a gaggle of Nashville session players including George Jones sideman Hargus “Pig” Robbins and bluegrass legend Stuart Duncan to turn those lo-fi tunes into the sparkling Music City masterpieces they might have always been. It didn’t earn him a call from the Grand Ole Opry, but it made for a fantastic addition to his ever-growing discography.

Bryan Ferry, Let’s Stick Together

Long before Bryan Ferry turned Roxy Music and solo material into ’20s-era flapper jams for his 2012 album The Jazz Age, he reclaimed a batch of tunes from his old band (which had just broken up) and gave them an R&B makeover for this 1976 LP. In a few cases, particularly the funked-up version of “Re-Make/Re-Model” and the modern Motown remake of “Sea Breezes,” the results are grand, but the rest don’t fly far enough away from the source material to come alive.

Simply Red, Simplified

Frustrated with the fact that he didn’t own the rights to some of his band’s best-known songs, Mick Hucknall tried to circumvent the bean counters by re-recording a handful of Simply Red hits in a light jazz, Afro-Caribbean style on this 2005 LP. His efforts might not have garnered him the “fuck you” money he was likely hoping for, but these new versions have a nice light touch to them that make for fine twilight-hour listening.

Patrick Wolf, Sundark and Riverlight

To celebrate a decade’s worth of making music, the British singer/songwriter Patrick Wolf created what he called a “self-portrait” of his career, grabbing 16 songs from his previous five full-lengths and losing every bit of techno-pop gloss in place of Hammered dulcimer, harp and grand piano. While a number of Wolf’s tunes weren’t too far removed from traditional folk in their original form, hearing him emphasize those elements provides for a number of magnificent moments.