Consider this post a testament to my Libra tendencies for fairness and balance.
Somewhat reluctantly, I watched American Idol this year even after I expressed my outrage at the “fix” AI was trying to put in to improve the talent and to avoid jumpin’ the shark for another year. I never did really land on a “favorite” and sort of ended up on the side of David Cook because I would have been for anyone but David Archuletta.
However, I noticed that many people went ga-ga (technical term) over David Cook and I really don’t know why. Really. I think he’s O.K. and can carry a tune, but I don’t see him as a particularly special talent. But, I respect other’s opinions and certainly, Colette’s, so…..Mr. Cook has a forum.
David Cook & His Idol Songs
Yes, I got roped into watching American Idol this year. I hold David Cook responsible.
The guy has an extraordinarily agile and expressive voice. He’s a genuine musician, seasoned and soulful. He blossomed before the eyes of viewers, getting more interesting, vocally various, likable and attractive as the contest ground on. And he knew how to pick a song, and make it his own.
The last quality is particularly special (and rare) in this kind of talent jamboree, which forces an array of young singer contestants to hack good (and mediocre) tunes of their choosing down to two-minute wonders. And many times, as Bobby McFerrin mentioned in a concert I recently saw by him, they feel encouraged to “over-sing” and imitate the vocal acrobatics of such uniquely gifted singers as Stevie Wonder or Whitney Houston.
But Cook figured out how to win by doing his own thing superbly, and much of the fun this season was wondering what he’d perform next and how.
A good song withstands many interpretations, in many styles. And once I started digging back to find clips of the tunes he sang, renditions by their composers and other major interpreters, I renewed my fascination with how an artist puts his/her own stamp on a melody and words sturdy enough to withstand many interpretations. So here are some of Cook’s songs, delivered by himself and others. I post them not in the spirit of, “Who did it better?” but “How does an artist shape a song to his or her own musical dimensions?”
“Billie Jean” was a mega-hit for Michael Jackson, his first really adult solo smash to me. It went to #1 on the charts in 1983, and told a dark, haunting story of being seduced and wronged. Legend has it that Jackson recorded his remarkable hiccupy vocal in one take, for producer Quincy Jones. Here is his most famous performance of the tune, on a TV show saluting Motown:
— “Billie Jean” — Michael Jackson
The remarkable Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, a seminal Seattle grunge band, seized upon the Jackson two decades later. He had the smart and gutsy notion to slow it way down, and sing it with an acoustic guitar and a mournful wail in an “unplugged” concert in Sweden. Here’s a beautiful live version of a tune he also recorded on his first solo disc:
— Chris Cornell
David Cook was inspired by Cornell’s version, and in a brilliant move adapted it for American Idol. Though he made sure that host Ryan Seacrest credited the arrangement to Cornell, Cook caught (unfairly) some flak from fans who felt Cornell was slighted by one the lavish praise by Idol judge Randy Jackson, about Cook’s creativity. Sorry, but I think Cook was very creative just for finding this arrangement, and singing the hell out of it in his own way:
— David Cook
“LITTLE SPARROW.” During Dolly Parton Week on “Idol,” Cook surprised many (including Parton) by turning to “Little Sparrow,” a tune often performed a capella by Parton. Very much in the style of an Old English ballad, on the archetypal theme of advising a young woman to retain her virtue and be wary of men, the song has a lonely beauty in this live version by Parton (clip has bad visuals, but fine vocal):
— “Little Sparrow”
But “Little Sparrow” also got a very different, deeply wrenching airing by the fabulous soul singer Bettye Lavette. She squeezes every ounce of emotion from the tune, here in a live performance of keen intensity:
“Little Sparrow” — Bettye
What distinguished Cook’s arrangement, despite his audacity and the novelty of having a man sing it, was his use of a high, ethereal falsetto. AT first hearing, I didn’t think he nailed it. By the 10th listen, I knew I was totally hooked:
— “Little Sparrow” — David Cook
“Day Tripper” is one of my favorite Beatle songs, in the “Ticket to Ride” vein of strutting rock. The 1965 Lennon-McCartney classic, about a “Sunday driver” of a gal, who is “a big teaser” and “left me half the way there” — presumably, got him very hot and bothered, and then didn’t come through sexually. Hey, whatever– it’s got a killer guitar riff, a great vocal with Paul on leade. And here it is with a lot of silly go-go dancers, lipsynched by the Beatles:
— “Day Tripper” – The Beatles
The 1970s band White Snake grabbed the tune, and gave it a harder-edged rock treatment. That really cooked. Here’s a rare video of them performing it:
— “Day Tripper” — White Snake
Cook had great fun tweaking the White Snake version, with a streak of heavy metal and a totally hip wha-wha voice box solo. He seems to be having a blast, and it’s infectious:
— “Day Tripper” — David Cook
“Happy Together.” Early in the season, Cook showed his originality by taking on a peppy novelty tune that just exudes good vibes. It was a huge 1967 hit for The Turtles, and wound up in the soundtracks of numerous movies. The Turtles were never the greatest live band, but they’ve kept on going to this day, and here they are doing their biggest single on a TV gig in the ’60s:
— “Happy Together” — The Turtles
Though Cook wasn’t yet the heart-throb he evolved into this early in the Idol contest, his version of the song was a favorite for me. I love the playful slyness, the flirty quality, and the audacity of the final note that goes on forever. And that lifting up the mikestand like a sabre! Too too cool:
— “Happy Together” — David Cook
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for.” I’m not very conversant with U2’s music, mainly because around the time they really hit I took a long vacation of pop music. But I’m so glad that Cook re-introduced me to “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” — which anyone who was listening in at the time recognized as a mesmerizing, questing yet enigmatic ode (as I’ve discovered many U2’s songs are). Here’s the inimitable Bono and band, on a VH1 telecast performing it with Bruce Springsteen:
— U2 with Bruce Springsteen
How do you follow that? Very credibly, in Cook’s case. The swooping soaring note at the end, and the fervent intensity throughout justifies the cover completely. At the very end of the contest, and his assurance and power are hot:
— David Cook
“My Hero”: Formed by Dave Grohl after the death of Kurt Cobain and break-up of their band Nirvana, the Foo Fighters have reflected Grohl’s interest in blending music with political activism, and also provided a showcase for his songwriting skills. The hit tune “My Hero,” recorded by the Foo Fighters in 1997, is so touching, in its elevation of humble, “ordinary” people to heroic status. Here’s the band’s acoustic version:
— “My Hero” — Foo Fighters
Cook did not sing “My Hero” on American Idol, but he did his own sensitive acoustic version during the three Idol finalists’ visit home week. It wasn’t aired on TV, but it’s available on youtube, and I really hope he’ll cover it in concert and/or on disc later. The sincerity of the vocal is lovely:
— David Cook
“The World I Know”: I really dig it when people turn me on to great music I’m unfamiliar with, and I knew nothing of the Georgia-based band Collective Soul until I heard this thoughtful song of theirs on “Idol.” Once again, it demonstrated Cook’s preferance for tunes with inspiring lyrics, about things that matter — in this case, the search for meaning and tenderness in a troubled world: “Has our conscience shown? Has the sweet breeze blown? Has all the kindness gone? Hope still lngers on.”
— “The World I Know” — Collective Soul
David Cook’s rendition, clearly from the heart:
— “The World I Know” — David Cook
“Always Be My Baby”: Finally, this is the song I believe sealed the deal for Cook winning American Idol, even though it was quite a few weeks before the finale. For him to be able to rearrange a pleasant but not remarkable 2006 Mariah Carey hit into a soulful anthem of love and support triumphing over heartbreak, was really breathtaking. I hope Cook the worthy new American Idol winner, becomes Cook, the constantly evolving recording and performing artist in his own right.
— “Always Be My Baby” — Mariah Carey
— “Always Be My Baby” — David Cook
So, there. Welcome to the Music Maven “No Spin” Zone. Fair. and Balanced.