Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
Chris Isaak‘s “Wicked Game” is one of those songs that seems to exist on their own plane of music. Released as a single in 1990, the track floated on its own hazy eddy, separate from the currents of both the ’80s that preceded it and the grunge sound of the early ’90s that came soon after. The song seemed more like a dream than anything else; a fevered hallucination, showing up unbidden in Isaak’s mind as some love he had no business having in the first place circles around and around.
The song was originally not all that popular as a single. It took two separate events to cement it as a classic: It was included in David Lynch‘s film Wild at Heart, and a second video (the first was directed by David Lynch for the Wild at Heart soundtrack) featuring the now-legendary black-and-white image of Helena Christensen rolling topless in the sands of Hawaii. An entire generation was captivated by the sexiness of the both the image and the song itself. The bleak look back at this relationship has an almost Gothic feel to it. The lyrics are steeped in a dark romanticism and the reverb and delay of the guitar make the listener feel unmoored from reality. It’s no wonder, then, that so many artists have felt the desire to cover it. There have been dozens of attempts, many of which have already been written about on Cover Me. This, then, is a look at some that haven’t examined yet.
Out of the score or so covers that are still new to the site, three stand out:
Phillip Phillips’s cover is good.
Gemma Hayes’s cover is better.
And Donna Missal’s cover is the best.
Phillip Phillips emerged victorious from the 2012 American Idol competition with more than just a record label; he had a bona fide hit song with “Home.” His Dave Matthews-esque sound was a big difference from previous winners on the show, and allowed him to tackle a different sound with his debut album. He included “Wicked Game” as a bonus track, and it’s a good thing he did. Phillip strips the iconic electric guitar part from his recording, instead relying on furious acoustic work and a voice full of desperation to get his point across. It’s an interesting contrast with the original, because it substitutes an earthy anger for the eerie longing Isaak brought, and it benefits from that earnestness.
Gemma Hayes’s version of the song also came from 2012, but instead of an album, it was recorded for the TV show Pretty Little Liars. She also made it available as a single. If Isaak’s original is a fever dream, Hayes’s cover is a sad fantasy. She’s no longer being burned alive by the intensity of the her emotions, but there’s still a dreamlike quality to the song. The chimes and strings make it sound like she’s being dragged through this pain for what may the thousandth time, leaving behind an emptiness where the fire used to be. Sometimes the memory of the heat is just as painful as the burn itself.
Donna Missal’s swing at the much-covered classic hit the internet sometime back in January, and it’s stunning. Her version, like the original, has a pulsing, vibrating guitar, but it’s no slavish copy. The stomps and claps give her song a more accusing tone than Isaak’s desultory delivery. If Chris and Gemma are dreaming, then Donna is raging, pacing back and forth in her anger until her break with reality comes from pure emotion instead of late-night fantasies. Keeping all that reverb, then, is a good move; it maintains a link to the original that would barely be there otherwise. Because Missal is able to maintain that link while totally changing the feel of the song and turning the emotion up to 11, her version is not only one of the newest covers of the song, but the best.