Britney's "Prerogative," and other recent covers.

Songs you've got to hear.
Dec. 2 2004 5:31 PM

Judging Songs by Their Covers

Britney Spears does "My Prerogative," organists tackle the Beastie Boys, and other recent standouts.

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Britney Spears Greatest Hits: My Prerogative (Jive) Click here to listen to Britney's cover of "My Prerogative," and here to listen to the original. Chances are good that Britney Spears was one of the million or so preteens who learned the word "prerogative" from former New Edition heartthrob Bobby Brown's 1988 smash. Tiptoeing the boundary between self-awareness and self-mockery, Spears' cover trades Brown's funky swing for a synthesizer line that has all the subtlety of a jet engine. But where the young Brown's first declaration—"They say I'm crazy, I really don't care"—was simply a brash dig at those angry about his ditching New Edition, Britney actually means it. Back then, at least, nobody thought Brown was literally crazy. But everybody has a theory on Britney, whose abdication of the pop throne has been spectacularly ugly. Here, Britney uses "My Prerogative" to assert that she's more responsible than we can possibly believe: "Everybody's talkin' all this stuff about me, why don't they just let me live?" It is both a surefire hit and a clever retort to her many hecklers; it is also the rare case in which the original rings even truer as the soundtrack to someone else's drama.

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Twilight Singers She Loves You (One Little Indian) Click here to listen to Dulli's cover of "Real Love," and here to listen to the original. Click here to listen to Dulli's "Summertime."For much of the 1990s, Greg Dulli was the sly, self-abusing, and unsuccessfully penitent dramatist at the heart of the now-defunct Afghan Whigs. She Loves You  is an all-covers affair that seems to indulge Dulli's softer side *: He reworks Mary J. Blige, Björk, Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star), and Nina Simone as sloppy, barroom rock. His brooding, muscular take on the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul's "Real Love" is novel enough, but the best covers elicit more than chuckles. Dulli's dark but reverent arrangement of George Gershwin's "Summertime" is far better. Here, the song is sinister—full of meandering strings, a sputtering melodica, and an acid contempt for the "mamma" and "daddy" of the original script. Like Dulli's best work, the result is unnerving and sleazy.

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Paul Weller Studio 150 (V2) Click here to listen to Weller's cover of "Thinking of You," and here to listen to the original. Click here to Weller's "If I Could Only Be Sure."When he first arrived on the scene in 1977, the 18-year-old Weller seemed to come with an expiration date. The prodigy behind catchy, chart-topping punks the Jam, Weller was obsessed with his own precocity. The only authentic fame, he suggested in song and in interviews, was gained by age 20; after that there was only obsolescence. So what are we to make of today's graying, unmistakably dadlike Weller? No longer wedded to the huffing and grunting of his punk days, Weller stretches his gruff voice on this retreat to the ready-made pastures of the songbook. Thankfully, Weller's idea of a standard is generous enough to accommodate both Bob Dylan and Rose Royce. He slims the disco strut of Sister Sledge's "Thinking of You" down to a proud, shuffling ballad that accentuates the original's love-struck playfulness. And his rollicking version of Nolan Porter's uptight soul obscurity "If I Could Only Be Sure" nods at the rare 7-inch singles Weller lusted for as a young mod, before he knew he could be 40 and content.

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Iron and Wine Garden State Original Soundtrack (Sony) Click here to listen to Iron and Wine's cover of "Such Great Heights," and here to listen to the original. Iron and Wine's Samuel Beam specializes in a sparse, bittersweet take on folk music that seems to predate Thomas Edison. Here, Beam takes on the spring-loaded, electro clip-clop of the Postal Service's "Such Great Heights." The original was one of last year's sleeper hits because it was a sweet, sentimental love letter everyone could identify with—or at least pogo to. Beam's version, though, is quiet and slow. He's backed by meager guitar plucking and occasional hisses. The cover has the loose, rambling intimacy of someone sharing a secret: "I hope this song will guide you home," he whispers, cultivating the illusion that the song was written not for anyone who's ever had a chat-room sweetheart, but with one beloved person in mind.

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Reuben Wilson Boogaloo to the Beastie Boys (Scufflin' Records) Click here to listen to Wilson's cover of "Brass Monkey" and here to listen to the original. Click here to listen to Wilson's "Something's Gotta Give," and here to listen to the original. Hip-hop sampling can sometimes feel like a one-sided conversation with the past, but this release from the Los Angeles label Scufflin' Records gives the past a chance to speak up. Reuben Wilson is an oft-sampled giant of the keyboard, and so is Bernie Worrell, who accompanies Wilson here—Wilson's 1960s and 1970s discs are groovy jazz classics, while Worrell was for a long time the backbone of Parliament-Funkadelic's raucous space-funk. Though neither has been sampled by the Beastie Boys, the pair runs through a diverse selection of the rappers' classics and experiments, replacing rhymes with chattering horns and dexterous organ lines. The oddities fare better as cover fodder. Without the familiar markings of a hit song—the opening fanfare of "Brass Monkey" or the awkward robot chorus of "Intergalactic"—the lesser-known cuts fan out in wholly new directions. "Something's Gotta Give" dissolves into something loose and languid, the only center being Wilson's solo halfway through, while the prankish fan favorite "Shake Your Rump" facilitates a duel between Wilson and saxophonist Andrew Beals as feisty as any of the Beasties' mic-passing moments.

Correction, Dec. 13, 2004: The original version of this article incorrectly called She Loves You Greg Dulli's "solo debut." This solo album is not his first. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College and is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.