Let’s face it: Bruce Springsteen’s megasuccessful “Born in the USA” is a weird album, often offsetting its dire tales of working-class Americans at the end of their rope with rock bombast. Springsteen fanatics have long realized that listening to Springsteen and the E Street Band pound out the title track or “Dancing in the Dark” in a stadium gives you a very different impression of the songs than you’d get just from reading the lyrics, and thinking about them.
Take away the instrumentation, and the mood of these songs is not all that different from the mood of the album’s predecessor in Springsteen’s catalog, “Nebraska.” But what would it be like if Springsteen had released the songs in “Nebraska”-like settings?
For the answer, look no further than the new “Dead Man’s Town” (Lightning Rod Records), a “Born in the USA” tribute album that pulls no punches, with slowed-down tempos and scruffy roots-rock arrangements. It’s likely that you won’t prefer any of these interpretations to the originals. But it’s also likely that some of them will make you look at the songs in a new way, or at least see new dimensions in them.
The track order follows the original album’s template. Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires set the tone with the title track, which pairs forlorn singing by Isbell with Shires’ haunting violin. Similarly, Justin Townes Earle’s “Glory Days” is a lament, not a celebration.
Things occasionally get more upbeat, on tracks such as Quaker City Nighthawks’ genial roots-rock take on “Darlington County” and Blitzen Trapper’s twangy “Workin’ on the Highway.” But more typical of the album is Apache Relay’ “Cover Me” — a pained wail, with singer Michael Ford sounding so fragile you fear he might collapse any moment.
Holly Williams turns in a stately “No Surrender,” the North Mississippi Allstars bring some down-home charm to “My Hometown” (possibly the only track that’s faster-paced than the original), and Joe Pug embraces the heartbreak of “Downbound Train” with a murky beat, an insistent piano figure and a howling harmonica. Nicole Atkins sounds truly “tired and bored with myself,” as the lyrics state, in a majestically unsettling “Dancing in the Dark.”
Tribute albums are notoriously hit-or-miss affairs, but this one offers a coherent, thoughtful and uniformly well-executed reinterpretation of an album that is justly loved in its own right, but still calls out for such treatment.
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