Measure for measure: Wolf Alice and the craft of a great cover

Ellie Rowsell sings on stage in a blue dress holding an electric guitar.
The London-based band Wolf Alice has mastered the art of covering songs, according to Becky Zhang PO ‘22.5. (Courtesy: Justin Higuchi/Wikimedia Commons)

Covers by established musicians flop more often than not, for the same reason that so many star-studded collaborations disappoint: The project’s presupposed promise is undercut by inadequate care, its curation given less intentionality than a typical song might warrant.

Like a long-awaited collaboration, the artist’s cover is so often taken as destined for greatness. The result is, more often than not, either a slight variation or a note-for-note imitation, leaving the lingering distaste of a familiar dish not quite cooked correctly or the forced supplanting of one genre with another, forming an overseasoned new flavor altogether.

Truly great covers, like The Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” The Chicks’ “Landslide,” Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and every song on “Glee” — only half kidding here — are hard to come by: those with the dual effect of invoking the original and creating its own sound as an original would. A great cover might catch you off guard and subvert your expectations, while never straying so far from its source as to be unrecognizable. A great cover is an exercise in both imitation and overhaul: a balancing act that constitutes an art form in its own right.

The squeezing of one song into another one altogether often does not work, unfortunately — especially when, as so often happens, a lucid song gets belabored by overcompensating vocals, as in Lorde’s cover of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” Nor does the temptation to simply slow down a song that is not slow, to strip down a song that is not acoustic, guarantee a hit, as Taylor Swift showed with Vance Joy’s otherwise spirited “Riptide.” Some covers with ambitious, even admirable intentions still go awry, like Dua Lipa’s stiff performance of “The Hills.”

Yet Wolf Alice gets it right each time. The intention and dexterity that the London-based alternative rock band puts into each of their covers — spanning Charli XCX, The Cure, Chris Isaak, Green Day, Camila Cabello, alt-J and more — is remarkable. This variety speaks less to their versatility, though undoubtedly helpful, and more to their mastery of the craft of covering. Having absorbed and processed the ethos of each song in its entirety, they were well-equipped for the grand endeavor of blending them with their own musical sensibility.

The group’s cover of Years & Years’ “Desire” well exemplifies the balance a great cover must strike. Their rendition renovates the feel of the dance-pop song while still capturing its tender essence. The band fosters a dynamic and emotional variance that the original lacks, even swapping the chorus’s minor chord opening for a major one. While Years & Years’ “Desire,” sung in the chorus, is a compressed belt well in line with its firm beat, Wolf Alice’s lead vocalist Ellie Rowsell’s “Desire” rips across tempo and volume, allowing each moment of its utterance to swell. Through its flagrant aching, the cover draws out the yearning nested in what seems straightforwardly, though is not merely, a dance song.

Covering One Direction’s “Steal My Girl,” Wolf Alice cultivates a louder, cruder sound. As with any great cover, one who has listened to both versions will yearn for the cover in the absence of the original, and vice versa. Listening to Wolf Alice’s rendition, one understands, not regretfully but appreciatively, that it has withheld the crude sweetness, Journey-esque keys and classic-rock aura of the original. Listening to the original, meanwhile, one might smile knowingly, recalling the shoegaze-y potential that underlies the boy band’s saccharine 2014 hit.

The band’s take on Katy Perry’s “Roar” demonstrates their defiance of a common temptation to imitate all of a song, especially those features that might seem critical to the original version. Notice the flatness of Rowsell’s notes in the newly sparse verse and pre-chorus, her refusal to flare them upward like Perry does so well. While Perry’s vocals come across as declarative, Rowsell holds fast to her signature: drifting, almost indifferent words that demand a deeper listen for what feeling lurks beneath. The instrumentals oscillate between eerie melancholy and eruptions of noise, offering a generative contrast to, without ever quite overriding, the lively, uplifting aspect of Perry’s original.

Wolf Alice takes a song and rockifies it, throws in some punk and shoegaze, sings equal parts holler-loud and whisper-quiet. As with their own music, they aren’t afraid to whittle down a poppy melody to a searing, stringy one, nor to go all out on the drums in an otherwise mundane chorus or bridge. Nor have they hesitated to attempt new genres altogether, reconfiguring them as they went, as when they covered King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard’s swingy “Sense” and Alex G’s mournful, bluegrass “Bobby,” both in the past year.

Perhaps most radically, the band’s singers, instead of lathering once-pure vocals with embellishment and strain, take more coated vocals and skin them raw. While so many others opt to either reshape the surface of a song or raze it to the ground, Wolf Alice takes the time to stroll about and press their ear against its heartbeat, to tweak and transform a song just above its roots. Their covers feel easy, as opposed to overwrought, in spite of their taking this harder path.

Great covers — and great musicianship — result when artists’ visions properly collide. A single melody might, with the right care, metamorphose through infinite sonic permutations, while always retaining an echo of that very first feeling.

Becky Zhang PO ’22.5 likes listening to music, especially while in a moving vehicle.

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