It’s common knowledge to hardcore Bruce Springsteen fans that some of the songs on 1984’s full-band blockbuster Born in the U.S.A. came together around the same time as the material that’s on his 1982 solo-acoustic effort, Nebraska.
On Dead Man’s Town: A Tribute to Born in the U.S.A. (Lighting Rod Records), various artists take a more Nebraska-esque approach to the U.S.A. album, front to back. Medleyville’s Chris M. Junior, Mike Madden and Michael Corby break down the disc.
Chris M. Junior: First up is the Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires take on the title track. Springsteen loyalists might not agree — or if they did, they wouldn’t admit it out loud — but this version blows away any acoustic version Springsteen has done in concert. There’s a consistency and smoothness to the melody and instrumental backing, and Isbell’s mournful voice is complemented nicely by Shires’ violin.
Initially, I thought Win Butler of Arcade Fire was the one doing the slow-motion cover of “Cover Me,” but in fact it’s the roots band The Apache Relay. This one works for me, too.
Mike Madden: “Cover Me” is a song I always thought deserved a slower or softer interpretation, so I agree that this version is unique. I like the use of the backing vocals and some of the sound effects. It makes for kind of a whimsical take.
Quaker City Nighthawks had the most-like-the-original cover on the album with their take on “Darlington County,” and that isn’t in any way bad. I could have done without the corny clapping and whistling once it was over. Let the listeners applaud, guys.
Michael Corby: The title track and “Cover Me” on Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. are a great one-two power punch. Both songs being performed in a slow pace brings a downer feel, which is in drastic contrast to the originals. “Cover Me” would have much better served this tribute had it been recorded closer to the original to contrast the different take on “Born in the U.S.A.”
Blitzen Trapper’s cool, bluesy version of “Working on the Highway” is a better example of an artist putting its flavor to a remake that works with the original album’s flow. The blues slide-guitar work brings out that “chain gang” setting in the lyrics.
Junior: It’s probably an artistic coincidence that these versions of “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Cover Me” are stylistically similar. Sure, they lack the instrumental power and firm backbeat of the originals, but there is a subtle power in the performances and the production.
As soon as I heard the moaning harmonica in Joe Pug’s “Downbound Train,” I imagined Springsteen hearing this and saying to himself, “Damn, wish I’d thought of that back in ’84!” That said, the harmonica lines are by far the best part of this rendition. Low’s “I’m on Fire” is nothing special, either, but then again, there’s only so much you can do with a blah song like this.
Madden: Low has typically underperformed in covers projects. The band is usually part of the “Undercover Sessions” for The A.V Club’s site, and every time those guys participate, it’s a misguided effort to change a classic.
Following this dud is what I believe to be a sweet spot of the tribute: the version of “No Surrender” by Holly Williams. It has just the right amount of quiver in her vocals to make the listener question her command of the song’s spirit, but as the song goes on, her vocals surge. By the end of her performance, it’s clear that she has delivered.
Corby: The vocal performance by Ryan Culwell on “Bobby Jean” is way too gruff and dramatic. The stripped-down backing track does little to mask his vocal ineptitude. The over-the-top pain in his voice is just too fake sounding and is underwhelming.
A real joy is Trampled by Turtles’ version of “I’m Goin’ Down.” The blend of the honky-tonk instrumentation and hand claps mixes tremendously with Dave Simonett’s vocal tone. The way the group changes the tempo from the original to a country shuffle was a smart move musically.
Junior: Justin Townes Earle deserves credit for changing up the tempo, feel and instrumentation for “Glory Days,” but in the end, his heartfelt vocal can’t compensate for the corny lyrics (still among the most cringe-inducing of Springsteen’s career). Jersey Shore native Nicole Atkins fares much better with her spooky spin on “Dancing in the Dark” (still, no one has been able to top John Legend’s arrangement of this song). And while other acts dialed down their Dead Man’s Town contributions, the North Mississippi Allstars went in the opposite direction, giving the somber “My Hometown” a little rhythmic kick, a horn section and a vocal boost to the chorus, ending this tribute on a high note.
Madden: Quickly getting back to Trampled By Turtles, I think they did a stellar job with “I’m Goin’ Down.” This is the perfect band to participate in a Springsteen tribute because the musicians aren’t trying to be ultra-cool, and they don’t reinvent their own sound, either.
As far as Atkins goes, it’s interesting to hear her version of “Dancing in the Dark” because of her complicated history with Springsteen’s music. She has gone on record saying that her unwillingness to perform covers of his songs cost her early work in the bars and clubs along the Jersey Shore. So here she is on a tribute album for him doing what may be one of his best-known songs — and hitting a home run with it. Maybe a bar setting wouldn’t lend itself to this rendition, but Atkins shakes some rust off an old gem with this arrangement and her voice.
Corby: I do like the contrast of Atkins’ misty take on “Dancing in the Dark” and the North Mississippi All Stars’ Southern soul-rock on “My Hometown,” and they provide a fitting end to this tribute.