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Gotcha ‘Covered’: Smashing Pumpkins v.s. The Civil Wars

This month, we are back with another cover comparison, this time between a classic 90s rock ballad and its stripped-back, acoustic re-imagining.

The original:

With its deeply personal lyrics and highly dramatic, symphonic sound, Disarm is a song that instantly grabs the listener and tugs at their heartstrings from the first note to the last. The rise and fall in both tempo and dynamics throughout the song is executed beautifully by the backing orchestra and, of course, the bells (a seemingly small detail in the arrangement that is crucial to both the artistic and emotional impact of the track). This is a song that is perfect to sing along to, and it’s nearly impossible not to lose yourself in the emotion of the music.

Frontman Billy Corgan is the mastermind behind this intense and heartfelt song, yet he also provides the one element to the track that I feel is lacking — the vocals. I should mention that, though I am a fan of many Smashing Pumpkins songs, I have never been too keen on Corgan’s vocals (and it is this fact that holds me back from being a bigger fan of the band than I already am). In a way, the angst and pain behind the lyrics are certainly enhanced by Corgan’s harsh vocals, but for me, they also detract a bit from this otherwise perfect and very beautiful song.

The cover:

One of the things that makes a truly great cover is when an artist can take another’s song and make it their own. With their cover of Disarm, the now-disbanded folk duo The Civil Wars have managed to do just that. If it weren’t for the lyrics, it would be almost impossible to even tell that these two are the same song. The understated, stripped-back acoustic approach that John Paul White and Joy Williams took in adapting this track works very well with the tone and theme of the song, and, in contrast to the original, it is the lyrics that take center stage here, rather than the music. The consequence, of course, is that this version is a bit less ‘interesting’ (for lack of a better word) to listen to than the original, and the tempo drags a bit at times.

White and Williams never cease to amaze me with how divine their voices meld together, and this track is no exception. The build-up is slow and the music is certainly not as dramatic or impactful as the original, but the vocal performance is breathtaking and beautiful. Where Corgan’s vocals reflect more angst and anger, White and Williams give the song a more mournful and sorrowful tone. The Civil Wars were known for doing some unique and beautiful covers (especially in their live performances), and for me, this cover is most certainly their best and most memorable.

The verdict:

For me, this matchup is extremely close. So close, in fact, that it may be impossible to choose a clear winner. Musically, the original track’s brilliant orchestration certainly takes the cake. Vocally, the cover has a haunting beauty that simply cannot be beat. Corgan’s vocals make for a raw and angry telling of the song’s story. White and Williams spin a more melancholy tale. Both are powerful. Both are moving. So who wins? You, the listener, do, for having the privilege of enjoying two very unique and very beautiful interpretations of this lovely and emotional ballad.

What do YOU think? Was it truly a draw? Or is there a clear-and-cut winner in this cover matchup? Drop us a line to let us know, and if you have a cover you want us to talk about next, send it our way!

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