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Do you believe in magic? How about transformation? Deconstruction? Alchemy?

Well, you’d better, at least if you’re an arty rocker or a fan of such. When a contemporary pop musician with any pretension to significance performs a song he or she didn’t write, the result is supposed to resemble Greil Marcus’ recent description (in Salon) of the Wedding Present’s version of “Falling” (written by Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch and originally performed by Julee Cruise): “[A] principle of deconstruction from the inside of a sound…[the] Wedding Present batters and smashes at the tune like thugs kicking a drunk on the street. They don’t cover the tune, they cover the title: Everything in the music falls down, falls to ruin.”

Of course, playing somebody else’s song wasn’t always equivalent to rolling a drunk. Cover versions were originally a way to make a living, as well as a sort of trade school. The Beatles bashed them out all day and all of the night in Hamburg, revisiting their favorites for their early studio recordings. Bob Dylan and Paul Simon did similar apprenticeships, and—benefiting from the anonymity of folk melodies—even took credit for writing some well-worn tunes.

These days, though, the cover song must be carefully chosen for its value as history, homage, or irony. Playing nothing but covers is an admission of irrelevance and lower-caste status. “Well, I’ve been saving for a custom van/And I’ve been playing for a cover band,” admits Fountains of Wayne’s “Utopia Parkway,” a dispatch from blue-collar suburban loserville.

Overexcitable rock theorists such as Marcus bear some of the blame, but it was the canny (or simply burned-out) Dylan who got there first, with 1970’s Self Portrait, an album that presented schlocky covers of schlocky standards as a crucial aspect of his identity. That the album was unlistenable was a small problem, but just a few years later, the shallower, more stylish Bryan Ferry finessed that drawback with These Foolish Things and Another Time, Another Place—in the process claiming Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” as historic schlock worthy of ironic homage.

Subsequently, covers have taken on heavy burdens. The Clash recorded its favorite reggae songs to assert that the band wasn’t as white as songs such as “White Riot,” “Safe European Home,” and “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” suggested it was—and Joe Strummer continues to play a lot of those same covers onstage to invoke the glory that was the Clash without seeming too dependent on the Strummer-Jones songbook. Oddball covers also feature prominently on soundtrack albums, with recent curiosities including Iggy Pop’s “I’ve Gotta Be Me” (from Freddy Got Fingered). And, of course, conceptual cover albums have been coming nonstop for more than a decade, paying tribute to just about every ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s rocker who recorded more than a handful of singles.

Though some tribute/cover albums draw a cast of boosters who are more famous than the artists being saluted—1990’s Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson is one example—it’s frequently the other way around. The recent If I Were a Richman: A Tribute to the Music of Jonathan Richman and Give the People What We Want: Songs of the Kinks are typical, assembling fairly small circles of friends whose musical accomplishments are hardly comparable to those of the tributee. The latter, which draws its 19 acts from the Sub Pop/Pacific Northwest axis, works pretty well, because it matches its minor-league garage bands (Young Fresh Fellows, Fastbacks, Mudhoney) with minor-league (and generally early) Ray and Dave Davies tunes. The attempts (by Mark Lanegan and Baby Gramps) to turn Kinks songs into old-timey artifacts are overly tortured, but the set holds together better than most multiact tribute albums. By generally skipping the Kinks’ most-covered material, the collection evades the obligation to boldly reinterpret songs that are too familiar to be simply remade. Still, “Waterloo Sunset” in any guise is a better song than “Act Nice and Gentle.”

If Give the People What We Want succeeds in a small way by ducking most of the big problems associated with cover albums, Tori Amos confronts them head-on. Her Strange Little Girls tackles works by rock composers who are outright famous (Lennon-McCartney, Martin Gore, Joe Jackson, Neil Young), cult-certified (Lou Reed, Lloyd Cole, Tom Waits), or low-profile but actually well-represented on the ’60s and ’70s charts (Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart). It may all be a means, however, to reclaim just one song: ” ’97 Bonnie & Clyde,” an adolescent homicidal fantasy by the noted auteur Eminem.

If you’re not an Amos fan, Strange Little Girls is rough going. The singer applies the same strategy to all 12 tracks, denaturing and usually becalming them in the manner of arty synth-poppers circa 1980 (guided, of course, by Ferry’s cover albums and David Bowie’s Pin Ups). She takes most of the tunes spare and slow, skirting the melodies and overenunciating the syllables as if this were jazz and she were a licensed chanteuse. In the process, she trips over not a single revelation.

The album’s theme is how men sing about—or, occasionally, in the personae of—women, but Amos didn’t choose such notorious tunes as the Stones’ “Stupid Girl” or the Pistols’ “Bodies.” In fact, she picks only one big fight: with “’97 Bonnie & Clyde.” But giving this brutish whimsy the high-seriousness piano-and-string-section treatment puts Amos, not the song, at a disadvantage. She doesn’t transfigure Eminem’s hate—she just reiterates it, like a court stenographer reading back a murderer’s testimony. When Eminem performs the track, there’s a sense that he’s not just babbling baby talk to communicate with his toddler (who’s accompanying “Da-da” to the beach, where he intends to dispose of Mommy’s body), but that the rapper really is a kid at heart, albeit a nasty, knowing one. Amos, however, is all grown up. In interviews, she’s said that she identifies with the “woman in the trunk,” Em’s ex-wife and imagined victim. Her version of the song, however, fails to crawl inside.

Which just goes to show that covering—excuse me, alchemizing—rock tunes is of limited utility. Youthful hostility can be too strong and pure to be deconstructed. And some songs ask not to be interpreted but to be answered. —Mark Jenkins

Find a complete collection of What Goes On columns on the Web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.