When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Foo Fighters take on Arcade Fire’s “Keep The Car Running.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
Though consensus is often a hard thing to come by in music-criticism circles, it’s a safe bet that Dave Grohl will be generally considered one of the most important figures in the last two decades of rock ‘n’ roll. Depending on the writer’s unique perspective, he or she will either focus on his time drilling the skins during Nirvana’s heyday or his long years shepherding Foo Fighters, one of the most authentic and successful bands of the modern era. There may be a few detractors who assert Them Crooked Vultures or Probot featured his best work, but they will be in the minority. Regardless, central to all of their arguments should be an understanding that, through sheer grit, charm and talent, Grohl has earned every bit of his acclaim. Playing in a band with the iconic Kurt Cobain didn’t hurt his chances of early-’90s success, but one full rotation of Foo Fighters’ eponymous debut likely hushed any doubt that Grohl was a songwriting force in his own right.
It’s important to consider how posterity will behold Grohl because we’re now witnessing another group of inevitable legends make their initial marks on popular culture: Arcade Fire. Whether you adore or can’t stand the Montreal band—or it’s simply the hype surrounding them that invokes your disdain—two sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden last week should be enough proof that their impact matters. They’re arguably the most successful “indie” band of all-time, continuing to operate on their own terms while bridging the gap between mainstream and underground circles, in addition to be lavished with praise by rock luminaries such as Bruce Springsteen, Bono and Davids Byrne and Bowie. Aside what people say about the band, though, the more important point is, like Grohl, Arcade Fire is part of a select group of musicians that defy marketing and consumer trends, enhancing the cream-still-rises maxim in a digital environment that tries its hardest to negate the viability of long-term success for today’s artists. In other words: Young songwriters and bands, just write what you love, and if it’s great, people will notice, no matter who’s doing the taste-making in our ever-evolving media landscape.
Given Grohl’s underground savvy and shared relationship to eventual legend status with Arcade Fire, then, it makes sense that he’d find a way to cover the younger band’s work without coming across as out-of-touch. Afterall, he’d likely be the first to assuage any attempt to write his musical obituary just yet, and he’d be well-justified to do so; though I personally became an inactive Foo fan with In Your Honor, the man’s murderous Them Crooked Vultures work is proof he has no plans on playing Vegas any time soon.
Though so much more palatable than the sound of a thousand Mrazs arriving in recent years, wielding their puerile looks and ready-made Hills‘ songs, it can’t be ignored that Grohl and his talented Foo contemporaries took a turn toward the adult contemporary around the time In Your Honor hit shelves. The band had steadily eased up its hard-rock tendencies since the mid-’90s when its work was more reminiscent of, well, Nirvana and Sunny Day Real Estate, softening its approach to the point where an acoustic tour was deemed a worthy venture in 2006. It was in this style that Foo Fighters approached Arcade Fire’s “Keep The Car Running,” a track from Neon Bible that continues Win Butler’s long-standing obsession with auto imagery. The original, as evidenced below in live form, was simultaneously more orchestral and punk rock, even to the point of Butler shattering some production glass with his ukulele upon the song’s climactic end. Tellingly, the act made me recall the the fuzzy, frenetic assault of the Foo of yore.