Cover Girl

The 13 Scariest Cover Songs

on January 13, 2017, 1:00pm
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Feature Image by Virginia McCarthy and Cap Blackard

Cover Girl is a monthly music column in which Associate Editor Nina Corcoran compares cover songs to their original version. To celebrate Friday the 13th, this month’s column highlights 13 cover songs that give us the spooks, either from their lyrics or their musical arrangements.

As the world keeps turning and so does everything with it, the descriptors we use to better understand what surrounds us shift. What does it mean to be scared? What makes something scary? Well, if you look at the last few years, quite a lot. We’ve transitioned from horror films about vampires and zombies to ones about a children’s pop-up book and vaginal teeth. Songs about death frighten just as much as songs about fear of loss. What scares us no longer stems from direct, obvious imagery but rather the potential for it to arise, to appear before us, or to be taken away.

Music changes in a similar fashion. Serial killer stories make just as good of lyrical fodder as a desire to perform said acts, even if never followed through. Creeping ’80s synths set the mood as much as deadpan pop punk can. When a musician has their eyes set on a mood, they see to it, creating tracks that wrap themselves up in a mist and leave much to the imagination — especially when writing dark material.

To honor Friday the 13th, take a stroll through some of the scariest cover songs in music history. Artists know how to write bone-chilling lyrics or set the mood with eerie instrumentals. Other musicians know how to take those two facets, wrap them in ways they see fit, and offer up a rendition that turns an already eerie song into one that’s far more unsettling than anyone could have predicted. After all, what’s scarier than being surprised?

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Nick Cave – “Avalanche” (Leonard Cohen Cover)

Out of all the darkness that pools in Leonard Cohen‘s Songs of Love and Hate, the song that drowns the deepest in it is “Avalanche”. Cohen sings about obsession over syncopated flamenco guitar pattern. But it’s when the song begins revealing just how far that obsession runs (“It is your turn, beloved/ It is your flesh that I wear”) that the horror of his story unveils itself. Over three decades ago, Nick Cave covered the song on his 1984 album, From Her to Eternity, with tons of snarling and ominous bass. It’s well known that Cave is the master of scary songwriting, but when he wields a fellow musician’s twisted song, he becomes an even more troubled painter, dashing hues of grey and troubled black all over the original piece. Even his recent rerecording of the song for Black Sails in 2015, though filtered through minimalist structure, pushes Cohen’s song into a darker realm.

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Nouvelle Vague – “Bela Lugosis Dead” (Bauhaus Cover)

If we’re going to talk scary music, then we have to talk about Bauhaus‘ first single. The English post-punk band helped found goth rock and, as a result, created space for the gloomy, dark, brooding music that followed in their footsteps. Merely six weeks into their career as a band, Bauhaus entered the studio to record “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” and premiered it in 1979 as their first single. The sprawling, nine-minute number screeches and crackles in a way that sounds like their guitars are melting, but in the hands of French cover band Nouvelle Vague, the song pulses with a different brand of fear. It switches into a new wave realm. Nouvelle Vague ditches overpowering volume in favor of a slinky musical driven by accented percussion, and though it’s less than half the length of the original, it breathes new life into Bauhaus’ work and makes that creepy repeated muttering (“Undead, undead, undead…”) all the scarier.

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Editors – “Lullaby” (The Cure Cover)

No matter which way you interpret it, “Lullaby” is unnerving. To most, The Cure‘s 1989 single is an allegory for drug addiction, a harrowing reality that’s scarred a large portion of the population who, at one point, if not still, struggled to control a battle against substance abuse. To others, it’s a metaphor for depression and the difficulties of escaping its claws. To Robert Smith, the theme fluctuates, occasionally citing childhood nightmares or abuse as the sparks behind his lyrics. But even at face value, Smith’s words about being preyed upon and then swallowed whole by a spider are the thing of nightmares, and Editors punch up the words. Frontman Tom Smith spits Smith’s words out in a deep bellow while the band hurdles forward, channeling both ’80s synth and mellow post-punk, in a way that makes the song’s message entirely unavoidable.

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Moses Sumney – “O Superman” (Laurie Anderson Cover)

I’ll never forget the first time I heard “O Superman (For Massenet)”. Most people say the same. Laurie Anderson‘s masterpiece of a song rolled out in 1981 and, despite its unconventional structure, managed to hit No. 2 on the UK Singles chart. She loops two chords formed by the word “Ha” and speaks through a vocoder for over eight minutes — the length it took for a bomb to be released and hit the ground. Birds and saxophone eventually enter the picture, creating a relaxing atmosphere, but the song’s relative silence and build create an awareness of something else, of something ominous entering the picture.

In his cover, Moses Sumney falls into her words, his voice swelling with beautiful results, but Anderson’s lyrics — “Here come the planes/ They’re American planes/ Smoking or non-smoking?” — and the message left on a mother’s voicemail haunt in a way they could not have predicted at the time of the song’s release, obviously — and yet not at all — tied to the September 11th attacks. Sumney’s version follows a happier key than Anderson’s up until the very end. It’s there that Sumney lets the song dive underwater, instrumentals submerging themselves in a muddled, bouncy, eerie tone, while his voice twirls above it all, searching for something, anything, to pull him out of the isolated trauma.

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Judy Collins – “Pretty Polly” (Dock Boggs Cover)

Old-timey blues hits the heart, but those Appalachian folk singers knew how to tell tales fit for the Brothers Grimm, too. Meet Dock Boggs, a banjo player and singer who helped merge the Appalachian folk music of that time with African-American blues, often cited as an influence on modern folk musicians. On the popular 1920s song “Pretty Polly”, he casually sings about a drifter who’s smitten with a girl named Polly and, after convincing her to wed him, draws her out to the mountainside, shoves her in a grave he dug prior, and forces her to plead for her life before murdering her. Ah, the good ol’ days. The eternally iconic Judy Collins recorded a version back in 1968 for Who Knows Where the Time Goes that fleshes out the horror of his tale. With that pesky banjo out of the way, the words stand out, and Collins’ winding, mysterious jam rendition turns the song into a story that’s enticing and Western-like, making Polly’s death all the more surprising when you hear how she’s murdered.

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Cocteau Twins – “Strange Fruit” (Billie Holiday Cover)

Look, no one can out-do Billie Holiday, especially not on a song like “Strange Fruit”. It’s one of the most important songs of all time sung by one of the best singers of all time, and both deserve the praise they get for evoking such intense, emotional responses. Yet the Cocteau Twins bring a level of class to their cover, paying their respects to Holiday and the song’s content, by throwing themselves in a tide of sorrow. Elizabeth Fraser belts out Holiday’s words as if she’s caught in an undertow, Robin Guthrie smashes piano keys down, and Will Heggie scratches a guitar in the background as if it walks drunkenly in the process, the three combining to give the illusion of sea-sickness. It’s a horrifying retelling of America’s racism, the inhumanity of lynchings, and the millions of Americans who continue to stand by idly to watch.

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The Cardigans – “Iron Man” (Black Sabbath Cover)

Get over yourself, Tony Stark. Iron Man’s suit is cool and he fights swiftly, but the Black Sabbath story has him painted as a true villain. Sure, the band’s song sounded brutal upon its release in 1970 which added to the lyrics’ affect, it’s become a staple guitar lesson since then, the kind you teach someone in Guitar Center because it’s easy and sounds tough. The Cardigans, for reasons the world will never know, dusted the song off back in 1996 and plucked every strand of creepiness from the original until it became a haunting rendition that stands on its own. A slinky, jazzy beat carries the tune and frontwoman Nina Persson sings the worlds like she’s taunting listeners with a poisonous apple: “Now the time is here/ For iron man to spread fear/ Vengeance from the grave/ Kills the people he once saved.” It’s a cover ripe with creepy undertones and fatalistic implications. And to think, this cover appears on the same album that “Lovefool” comes from.

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Veruca Salt – “My Sharona” (The Knack Cover)

Horror is a living breathing reality for people of sexual assault, and nothing’s fun about hearing that subject approached in a poppy, fun way — except maybe hearing thousands of people sing the song without realizing what its lyrics really mean. The Knack rolled out “My Sharona” in 1979 and instantly became a one-hit wonder. It punches with snappy bass and guitar melodies, plus singer Doug Fieger delivers those lines with off-kilter, catchy enunciation. How could you not sing along? Veruca Salt are determined to make you stop. They cover the song in a slow tempo, singing each line with total deadpan delivery, even stripping the signature “Woo!” of its exclamation mark. When Fieger was 25, he met 17-year-old Sharona Alperin whom the song is named after. They dated, he fell in love, he wrote the song about her all in the span of two months. (That’s her on the single’s cover with a thumb looped through he jeans and a white tank with no bra on.) The louder Veruca Salt’s guitars howl, the more the song’s perviness stands out. “I always get it up from the touch of the younger kind”? No thanks.

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Tori Amos – “97 Bonnie and Clyde” (Eminem Cover)

No one likes to throw threats out the way Eminem does. On “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” back in 1998, he outlined how he would kill his ex-wife, Kim Mathers, all the way down to when he dumps her corpse in the ocean with help from his baby daughter, Hailie. He goes the extra step by include his baby’s giggles, too. But when Tori Amos covered the song in 2001 for Strange Little Girls, she turned Eminem’s otherwise laughable track into a song fully aware of its ominous tale. Strings tip-toe behind Amos as she whispers Eminem’s words. When a serial killer tapes their evil wrongdoings, this is what it sounds like. Well, maybe Amos’ voice is a bit prettier than theirs, but it’s scary nonetheless, turning a cheeky rap song into a haunting confessional that draws out the wickedness of Eminem’s jokes.

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Anna Calvi – “Ghost Rider” (Suicide Cover)

The protopunk chugging of Suicide‘s greatest song, “Ghost Rider”, never rests. It churns like a malicious beast, rearing its hoofs and eager to trample whatever gets in its way. When Alan Vega shouts, that note that echos forever and ever until it fades, the song draws goosebumps from anyone who hears it. Yet in the hands of Anna Calvi, “Ghost Rider” seems exponentially more manic, like the narrator looks back on what they already did, a mess of murdered bodies and trampled faces sprawled before them, only then coming to terms with their power. The 2014 cover comes from her Strange Weather EP where she wields her guitar with the nervous bipolarness of St. Vincent, and on this cover, it reaches its finest form. Calvi straps herself into Vega’s shoes and wakes up in a nightmare more vividly told than the original, which, given its timelessness over four decades later and given there’s a scary Merzbow cover out there too, is quite a feat.

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This Mortal Coil – “Late Night” (Syd Barrett Cover)

After Syd Barrett left Pink Floyd, he recorded two solo albums, the first of which was the insouciant, folk psych LP The Madcap Laughs. Barrett allows himself to get tangled up in his dreams on “Late Night” while guitars leap around, creating a summery vibe that captures its 1970 release. In the hands of gothic dream pop collective This Mortal Coil, the song loses every drop of sunshine Barrett injected into it. The group, led by Ivo Watts-Russell, the founder of record label 4AD, rotated through a group of supporting artists and singers, many of whom were signed to 4AD.

As such, the collaborative nature led to countless covers, including one of “Late Night” for 1991’s Blood LP. A somber synth holds a single note. No other instruments appear. Instead, Caroline Crawley sings each word, letting them hang in the air with eerie echoes. The whole thing feels like the type of song a little kid sings in a horror movie right before their head spins around and Satan flies out of their eyes. That’s no dig on Crawley — her voice is gorgeous — but it’s the pairing of her melodies with that three-minute-long note that create a level of anxiety that’s seconds away from snapping, even when a few chords appear at the song’s final moments.

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Sufjan Stevens – “You Are The Blood” (Castanets Cover)

Part-country, part-psych folk act Castanets never quite got the love they deserved, especially when it comes to their knack for beautifying the uncanny. Their debut LP, 2004’s Cathedral, lets “You Are The Blood” open with, “You are the blood beneath my fingers,” which, if you’re a level-headed person, immediately brings to mind the image of someone dying in your hands — not the happiest of sights. Castanets extend that slow-motion panic of death overtaking someone by pounding on a bass drum, banging makeshift percussion instruments, and letting their harmonies rise through note progressions that seem a little, well, unstable.

Then along came label-mate Sufjan Stevens in 2009 with a cover that drew out the morbidity, disillusionment, and haunting imagery of that song. In a 10-minute opus for compilation Dark Was The Night, Stevens improvises over the band’s words. It begins with off-putting electronic bubbling, transitions into sullen horns, shifts into minimalist synth twinkling, collapses into a pre-Age of Adz electronic mish-mash, runs into an intricate piano solo, and then reprises those introductory horns. If a single song could soundtrack the emotional breakdown of watching a loved one die before you, Sufjan Stevens’ cover would be it.

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Xiu Xiu – “Sycamore Tree” (Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch Cover)

Angelo Badalamenti, working alongside co-creator David Lynch, brought Twin Peaks to life, and few songs off that soundtrack haunt the way “Sycamore Trees” does when sung by jazz vocalist Jimmy Scott. Now, we won’t spoil the context for those who haven’t watched the show (though, really, it’s time to fix that if you still haven’t seen it), but the way in which Xiu Xiu expands upon that mood for 2016’s Plays the Music of Twin Peaks leaves us wishing they scored the original TV show to begin with. Dramatic piano trembles at the intro, recorded via what sounds to be tape, and the band follows it with shaking vocal delivery by Jamie Stewart, the type of singing someone would belt in their bathroom, cold and shivering, on the verge of going insane. Musically, the song is quite beautiful with Xiu Xiu’s sparing piano, but Stewart’s vocals elevate this moment in Twin Peaks to a world somehow creepier than that original scene.

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