Sunday, March 15, 2009

Week 42: "Just Like Heaven" Cover Versions

In 1987 the British rock band The Cure released the song “Just Like Heaven.” Arguably their most recognized and most revered song, “Just Like Heaven” combines a mid-tempo rock beat, a catchy melody, and Robert Smith’s distinctive voice and romantic lyrics. You can see the 1987 music video here.

The song is just about perfect. In fact, in 2004 Rolling Stone ranked it as one of the 500 greatest songs of all time. It has a great beat and a great melody but the lyrics are what makes the Cure’s original version of the song so special. The song is romantic and mysterious and it manages to be seriously sexy without trying too hard. Moreover the lyrics blend and bend dream and reality, perfectly capturing a love that is disorienting and dizzying. Consider the opening verse,
"Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick
The one that makes me scream" she said
"The one that makes me laugh" she said
And threw her arms around my neck
"Show me how you do it
And I promise you I promise that
I'll run away with you
I'll run away with you"
The lyrics continue with the following imagery,
Spinning on that dizzy edge
I kissed her face and kissed her head
And dreamed of all the different ways I had
To make her glow.
When the chorus comes around there is even more dreaming, dancing, and twisting:
You
Soft and only
You
Lost and lonely
You
Strange as angels
Dancing in the deepest oceans
Twisting in the water
You're just like a dream
You’re just like a dream
But it is not The Cure’s original version of the song that I want to focus on in this 42nd week of the 52 Songs in 52 Weeks essay project. Instead, I want to write about my two favorite cover versions of “Just Like Heaven.”

The first version I want to mention was released on the 2008 album Fire Songs by The Watson Twins. The Watson Twins had released a prior album in 2006 called Southern Manners although they are probably best known for appearing on Jenny Lewis’ exquisite debut solo album Rabbit Fur Coat, also released in 2006.

On their version of “Just Like Heaven,” The Watson Twins slow the song down to a ballad which contains a folksy flavor and a touch of the South. On this video of them performing the song on a radio show the piano is set a little too loud and the harmonica is a bit more pronounced than on the album version. Nevertheless, they manage to bring new levels of sensuality to a song that I could hardly imagine being more sensual. Here they are performing it at a record store.

There is no sharper contrast to The Watson Twins’ version of “Just Like Heaven” than the cover version recorded by Dinosaur Jr. and released in 1989. Dinosaur Jr. was a seminal early alternative-rock band that formed in the college town of Amherst, Massachusetts in the mid-1980s. Though they never garnered the same popularity or record sales that would come to many of the alternative rock and grunge bands of the early 90s, Dinosaur Jr.’s sound influenced such bands and Nirvana and The Pixies.

Dinosaur Jr. broke up in 1997 but then reunited in 2005. It was during their reunion tour that I went to see them at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, Kansas. From listening to their albums for over a decade I went to the concert knowing that I was in store for lots of loud guitar distortion. However, I wasn’t prepared for this. Dinosaur Jr.’s frontman, J Mascis, plugged in his electric guitar in front of three full amp stacks from which came the gnarliest and most deafening sounds I could ever imagine a guitar producing. By the end of the first song I was listening from the back of the room. By the end of the fifth song I was standing at the back of the balcony. From there I retreated to the men’s room, but even there I found the band too ear-splitting. I do not exaggerate. I am not proud.

However, I do find the Dinosaur Jr. cover of “Just Like Heaven” to be masterful. It is played at a fast pace with unsurpassed levels of guitar distortion. Dinosaur Jr. rocks this song. If you choose (if you dare) to listen to versions of it available on Youtube (here, here, and here) check out how bassist Lou Barlow puts the entire microphone in his mouth and screams the word “you” during the chorus. Also notice how the band just quits the song at the beginning of the second chorus, which they also do on the cover version of the song they released in 1989.