BY DANNY R. PHILLIPS
There are artists that truly deserve the praise laid upon them, that warrant tributes to them or their works. Hank Williams, Dylan, Guthrie, Holly, Cash, Van Zandt, all of these larger than life figures have had tribute albums recorded of their music as homages to the mark they left on the musical landscape and the souls of those moved by their words.
The latest to be added to the tribute catalog is The Boss himself Bruce Springsteen. Dead Man’s Town- A Tribute to Born in the USA is a song for song re-telling of Springsteen’s landmark 1984 album featuring some of today’s finest talent: Jason Isbell and Amanda Shire, Justin Townes Earle, Blitzen Trapper, Low, Holly Williams. On paper, it is a great idea; in execution however, it fails.
Isbell and Amanda Shires’ opening track “Born in the USA” just lies there sucked of all the passion and integrity that lived in the original. Disappointing, considering Isbell is an artist more than capable of so much with just a guitar and his voice.
Quaker City Nighthawks, on “Darlington County” fully explore the roots of the barroom where, drunkenly, everyone can sing along. Blitzen Trapper’s “Working on the Highway” is more parody than tribute, trying too hard for The Boss instead of making the song their own.
Not every song is a miss, however. Holly Williams’ performance brings out the beauty that resides in lost love and reluctant freedom out fully with “No Surrender.” Justin Townes Earle, a devoted follower of Springsteen whose covers of “Racing in the Streets” and “Atlantic City” are true things of beauty, takes on “Glory Days.” While it’s not on par with his turns with “Racing” or “Atlantic City,” there is a spare, slightly off-time sentiment that fits the song.
The best offer here is Low’s “I’m on Fire.” Ominous, dark, nearly a serial killer soundtrack, Low takes a song already on the edge and pushes it off the ledge. Burning slow, Low take the song gradually to new heights, breaking from a straight cover and possibly tapping into what Bruce intended the song to be: creepy, chilling and unforgettable.
As a tribute, Dead Man’s Town: A Tribute to Born in the USA is fine enough; just falling short of the material it champions. If Springsteen ever gets another “tribute,” I hope it’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, or maybe young Mr. Earle will decide to re-record Nebraska. Now, those would be fitting tributes.
DOWNLOAD: Low “I’m on Fire”; Holly Williams “No Surrender”