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.
With its distinctive mandolin intro, “Losing My Relgion” is arguably R.E.M.’s most instantly recognizable song, certainly the most recognizable ahead of needing the never-more-idiosyncratic vocal of Michael Stipe to nail the ID-ing. It’s also their most successful, marking the band’s only visit into the hallowed Top Five of Billboard‘s Hot 100. My only disappointment with the song is that I find I cannot frame a Five Good Covers piece around it.
Oh, it has certainly been covered enough – upward of 77 chronicled in the covers bible, Second Hand Songs – but sadly, tragically even, most are poor anodyne recreations of the original, to my mind lacking the charisma and charm that make the original by these four Athenians such an iconic piece of work. And then there are a few that try to imbue a whole different ambience, failing pyrrhically in the process. (Yes, that’s you, Rozalla.) Throat singing death metal, anyone? Gregorian chant?
But here are three that take some liberties, yet manage to add rather than subtract from the joy inherent in the melody.
“Joy” seems an odd epithet around the subject matter, but, undeniably, that is the feeling Stipe & Company instill. Maybe the codicil is that religion is a tie that binds, the loosening of which gives hope, the burden laid down. As well as bringing out the loonies above. But apparently, according to Stipe, the phrase has different meaning in the southern states, akin more to losing one’s temper, or, perhaps closer, losing one’s cool.
Be that as it may, I won’t go further into this as, frankly, who cares, it is just such a fantastic sound. Seldom if ever has a casually strummed mandolin carried so much weight and so much promise. Indeed, did Peter Buck ever much pick the instrument up again? He may have, but no-one remembers. In a live setting, all he ever had to do was unstrap his guitar and the crowd would cheer, that cheer swelling as he picked up his mandolin, even ahead of the chord sequence that opens the song, a sequence he lifted from his own practice tapes, as he tried to teach himself the basics of the instrument.
The PAUA cover is good.
The Tori Amos cover is better.
The Jacqui Naylor cover is best.
PAUA – Losing My Religion (R.E.M. cover)
PAUA are from the southern hemisphere, based in Brisbane, Australia, yet made up of diverse cultural backgrounds, comprising a mix of white Australia, Maori New Zealand, and the Philippines. Reggae is clearly the strongest suit, yet bringing in influences from soul and wider ethnic sources, they have shared stages with the likes of Third World and UB40. This version lopes along at a gentle skank, never quite breaking a sweat, with hints of dub reverberating in the background, leaving a mellow flavor that percolates through, the original melody and structure barely a shadow.
Tori Amos – Losing My Religion (R.E.M. cover)
Tori Amos needs no introduction, with a swath of reconstructions in her wake, often bearing closer comparison with her own material than with the source. So too this, a standalone track from and for the soundtrack of the 1994 film Higher Learning, she herself admits her understanding of the meaning within the song differs from that of Michael Stipe, whose lyrics they are. This offers a far more fundamental take, suggesting the horror that the devout may feel upon the loss of faith. Stark piano almost the sole accompaniment to the tortured vocals, it wreaks a painful apostasy.
Jacqui Naylor – Losing My Religion (R.E.M. cover)
I even surprise myself that this coups the gold, not least as it stays the closest to the original, with Naylor being more often associated with the hotel lobby or cruise ship end of the market, smooth jazz even. Indeed, a skim through her catalog reveals an overriding tendency toward the safety of standards culled from *shudder* the great American songbook, with the odd easier listening moments of Neil Young and U2 thrown in for good measure. This seems to be her most outre choice, begging the question as to why. Or, to my ears, why not more, a slight samba lilt complementing the drawled sassiness of the delivery. It may be the only Jacqui Naylor song you ever hear, perhaps the only one you ever need to hear; at any rate, swallow the prejudice and give it a go.