Throwback: When Milky Chance Put A Game-Changing Spin On A Taylor Swift Classic

16 February 2024 | 1:15 pm | Ellie Robinson
In Partnership With Ansatz Music Group

The German indie gems just wrapped up an Australian tour, and to celebrate they’ve dropped an EP of their ‘Like A Version’ covers.

Milky Chance / Taylor Swift

Milky Chance / Taylor Swift (Supplied)

More Milky Chance More Milky Chance

Milky Chance have a uniquely close bond to Australia: when Stolen Dance was blowing them right the hell up in 2013, it was here that its summery, smoke-tinged buoyancy hit the hardest – the song would even end up being certified Platinum four times over by the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA), and it came in at #4 in triple j’s Hottest 100 of 2014.

Much of the song’s local fame actually came at the hand of triple j, who absolutely rinsed it on the airwaves across the summer of 2013/2014 – and fittingly so, given how aptly it encapsulates the stoney, carefree vibrance that defined Australia’s indie scene in that era. But even after the dust settled on Stolen Dance, triple j kept their seat on the Milky Chance hype train; when 2016 rolled around and the German gems re-entered the spotlight with their second album, Blossom, the national youth broadcaster made sure to gas them up at every opportunity. Thanks to them, lead single Cocoon wound up going Platinum as well.

The band themselves certainly felt the love, and always leapt at the chance to share their appreciation. They were no strangers to the triple j studios, either, dropping by every time they visited between 2014 and 2020. The first time around, they made their Like A Version debut with a cover of Taylor Swift’s then-fresh megahit Shake It Off. Then, in 2017, they threw it back to 2000 for a take on Nelly Furtado’s I’m Like A Bird. And lastly, at the very start of 2020, they paid tribute to our very own Tones And I with a unique spin on her bop Dance Monkey.

There’s a small chance that a fourth Like A Version cover could be on the way – Milky Chance did just finish a weighty Australian tour to support their crash-hot fourth album (last year’s Living In A Haze), and hot on the heels of it, triple j released an EP of their first three on-air covers. Then there’s the fact that during their latest trek Down Under, their shows featured two covers: a dark, club-ready take on Gloria JonesTainted Love, and a techno-tinged redux of Culture Club’s Do You Really Want To Hurt Me.

Like A Version appearances are usually recorded in advance, so it could be a while yet before we hear one of those covers hit the airwaves – if they did, in fact, return to the triple j studios to lay one down. While we wait with baited breath to see if that’s the case, let’s take a trip down memory lane and revisit their first three sessions.

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

First off, Milky Chance took a huge risk by tackling Shake It Off. The band were enjoying their own wicked surge of fame at the time, but hell hath no fury like the Swifties – if their slinky, reggae-esque reinvention of the sugary pop banger didn’t land with her fanbase, they’d surely be fucked. Adding to the pressure was the Swifties’ existing ire towards triple j: after a fan-led campaign to get Shake It Off voted into the Hottest 100 went viral (despite never actually being played on the station), Swift was outright disqualified. In some ways, Milky Chance’s cover was a tongue-in-cheek nod to the hurricane of chaos that followed that whole “incident”.

The cover itself bloody ruled, though. For starters, it shines a completely new light on the original track’s sentiment with its drastic tonal shift. Swift’s version of the song is bright and upbeat, impossible to listen to without at least cracking a smile and tapping your toes; it’s an anthemic declaration of self-love, and not allowing bullies the chance to relish in their taunts. For their cover, though, Milky Chance slowed it down and cranked up the haze, giving it a dour slick with reverberant, delay-soaked electric guitar and backup harmonies that bled emotion.

Paired with Clemens Rehbein’s raw vocal delivery, it gave the sense that thee song’s protagonist was haunted by the rumours that plagued them, instead of seeing them as embarrassing. The vibe lifted when Rehbein introduced his acoustic strums and the beat picked up for the first chorus, but the greyer energy remained, and the song’s sentiment ultimately shifted from one of empowerment (you take what your critics say and shake it off because they don’t matter to begin with) to one of forced survival (you take what your critics say and shake it off because they matter too much to avoid).

Milky Chance were far from the first band to cover Shake It Off, but their reimagined take is certainly up there with the cream of the crop. We couldn’t possibly say it’s better than the original – so no, Milky Chance decidedly did not do Taylor Swift better than Taylor Swift – but it’s arguably close in terms of emotional impact and memorability. They took a song we’d all heard so much in 2014 that it’d become muscle memory to sing along, and made it feel so new and exciting that when it aired on triple j on January 9, 2015, it felt like we were hearing it for the very first time again. For that, it goes down as one of the best Like A Version covers of all time.

By the time Milky Chance returned to the triple j studios in 2017, they’d grown up a fair bit – Rehbein’s hair was no longer this shaggy mess you could smell through your screen, and his voice had developed a swaggering smoothness that just oozed charisma. It’s the centrepiece of the band’s second time on Like A Version, for which they tackled Nelly Furtado’s 2000 classic I’m Like A Bird. The concept mirrored their earlier take on Shake It Off: take a bubbly, effervescent pop song and flip into a poignant wallop of raw, sober human emotion.

Also returning for round two were the sonic tropes of big, roomy reverb and soaring vocal harmonies, with bassist Philipp Dausch and guitarist Antonio Greger elevating Rehbein’s leads with a wealth of their own character. And they of course flipped the tonal palette to reflect the doughy, reggae-inspired indie sound that made Milky Chance a household name. It’s a slower burn this time around – it takes more than a minute for the drums to kick in – but once the vibe is set, it flows along beautifully ’til the very end.

This cover ultimately feels a little less impactful than Shake It Off; the instrumentation on Furtado’s original is nothing like Milky Chance’s, but especially paired with the syrupy candour of the pop star’s vocal delivery, a blissed-out reggae cover isn’t too “out there” too envision. But therein lies the beauty of it: I’m Like A Bird is the exact kind of song fans would expect Milky Chance to cover, because it’s so easily adaptable to the sound they love the band for in the first place. Not every Like A Version needs to be a full subversion of expectations – sometimes the obvious choice is the right one to make. This was one of those times.

This cover also serves to show the major evolution Milky Chance went through in the break between their first two albums (2013’s Sadnecessary and 2016’s Blossom), because it’s not just Rehbein who grew up in those few short years. As a band, their musicality got tighter, their dynamic grew stronger and the way they gelled in live performance was polished and refined to a point of perfection. Their energy was still undoubtedly fun – they certainly retained all the colour and coolness they won their fanbase over with – but it all felt more legitimate. And this cover, slick and suave and just downright sexy, is a clear show of that.

So was it as exciting or memorable as their Shake It Off cover? No. And does it come close to touching the greatest Furtado bestowed upon us in 2000? Also no. But is it a brilliant cover nonetheless, and one we’re stoked to have the option of revisiting whenever we want? Fuck yes.

Milky Chance’s most recent visit to triple j HQ – in January of 2020, right before the world as we knew it came crumbling down – saw them take on Tones And I’s 2019 breakout hit Dance Monkey. The song itself already had a twinge of reggae inspiration to it, so it really was a no-brainer for Milky Chance to cover – even if the notion would evoke some eye-rolls from both fanbases (and understandably so).

This might be a hot take, but even if they totally flubbed it, the band could’ve walked away from this performance counting it as a win – Dance Monkey is arguably one of the most grating, rage-inducing songs to ever plague the airwaves. It corporal punishment in musical form, and it only went as viral as it did because it sounded so incredibly unique. But its singularity wasn’t a testament to its quality – Toni Watson and co. broke no barriers with the songwriting, performance or production – but rather how primed it was for memes and internet discourse.

To put it bluntly: Dance Monkey fucking sucks. In covering it, Milky Chance could only improve on the original version – and unsurprisingly, they did. They approached it the same way they did for Shake It Off and I’m Like A Bird, slowing it down and giving it some darker, hazier colours. It also reflected the expanded sonic palette the band explored on their third album, 2019’s Mind The Moon, with prickly electronic flourishes and a bold, driving groove.

The frizzly chord that drones through the song can get a little bothersome at times, but it never kills the vibe entirely. The focus here is on that soul-melting bassline and Rehbein’s swoon-worthy vocals, and where the original Dance Monkey felt like auditory torture, this cover actually feels pretty fun. Impressively, the band even managed to avoid feeling gimmicky or cheap. Its authenticity is palpable – you can tell they approached it with nothing but the utmost of care and sincerity.

It’s as if Martin Scorsese remade The Room as a true masterpiece of cinema. It is admittedly the weakest instalment of their Like A Version trilogy, but it’s a damn good time nonetheless – we’d give it the Oscar any day of the week.

The new EP also features all three of the original songs that Milky Chance played on triple j to accompany their Like A Version covers – an acoustic version of Stolen Dance in 2015, a belting go at Blossom in 2017, and a downright enchanting performance of The Game in 2020. You can listen to the full record on Spotify below.

Milky Chance didn’t perform The Game on their last trip Down Under – in fact they largely snubbed Mind The Moon altogether, only playing the first verse and chorus of Fado as a lead-in to their Culture Club cover – but what they did perform was still nothing short of magical. As we wrote in our review of their second stop in Melbourne: “The set ran for a little under 90 minutes and felt perfectly paced, masterfully riding the peaks and valleys that make Milky Chance’s catalogue so engrossing. There were soft and sweet moments of sunkissed indie-rock, belting wallops of dance-pop brilliance, and a few tasteful quips of rock’n’roll grit – and not a second felt mismatched or forced.”