When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Cat Power takes on Oasis’ “Wonderwall.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
“Is it weird that I like this better than the original?” asks YouTube user WheatToast0857, his/her comment in relation to a fan-generated video for Cat Power’s cover of “Wonderwall,” the 1995 mega-hit from Oasis. “NO Way. Not weird at all,” replies barryjones335, before defending the preference at length: “I cant stand Oasis because of his [Liam Gallagher’s] annoying voice. I don’t get why people like him so much. The lyrics are wonderful and her voice makes the song what it should be [italics mine]. This is beautiful.”
The irony of this conversation is that even Liam and his now-estranged brother Noel, the songwriting genius behind nearly every one of Oasis’ hits over the past two decades, would likely agree that Cat Power’s subdued, wistful cover is better than their original. These days, that might be the only thing they’d agree on. Sure, over the course of 15 years as Oasis, the brothers Gallagher fought nearly every step of the way, but it’s amazing how much disdain artists can have for their own creation after they’ve exhibited it for the (seemingly) billionth time. It’s no wonder, then, that Noel reportedly began re-arranging the live version of “Wonderwall” to better reflect Ryan Adam’s take when it was released in 2003.
No matter how they feel about the song now, the Gallaghers had to have known they were onto something remarkable when “Wonderwall” was recorded in a matter of hours in early 1995. Supposedly written about Liam’s ex-wife Meg Matthews, the song “did the one thing that British rock bands had been unable to do in years: break America,” notes All Music Guide‘s Chris True. And, of course, you don’t have to be a rock critic to remember exactly that. The mid-’90s were dominated by a return of British acts to the mainstream of America’s cultural consciousness. Between Oasis, Radiohead, Blur and, yes, even Bush and the Spice Girls, the Queen’s music was reaching more listeners in the States than at any time since the Rolling Stones and Beatles were crashing America’s party in the ’60s and early ’70s. And considering the sales and charts records Oasis was setting at the time, the Gallaghers were leading the way.
These days, the Adams cover is arguably the most popular take on “Wonderwall,” which has also seen versions by Beastie Boys, the Mike Flowers Pops, modern jazz great Brad Mehldau and even Jay-Z, whose live cover at the beginning of his Glastonbury set in 2008 was most likely meant to mock Oasis rather than honor them. (Noel had been publicly critical of Hova’s selection as the festival headliner in the days leading up the event.) I tend to agree with the anonymous man or woman behind the barryjones335 alias, however: Chan Marshall’s cover makes the song better than it ever could have been on its own, if for no other reason that Liam’s cocksure sneer (which I, unlike the majority of my peers, never really loved) gets displaced by Marshall’s affecting and sultry earnestness. As such, it’s subsequently the best version suited for this debate.