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Various Artists | Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska (Sub Pop)
If, as Martin Williams suggested, in reference to the recent homage to American Music Club (CWAS#6), the tribute album is "a highly questionable piece of modern ephemera," then what is one to make of an album that further condenses its chosen 'target' to a single album plucked from such a mighty ouvre as that belonging to Bruce Springsteen? Nebraska, his 1982 lo-fi masterwork that bridged the bombastic statements of The River (a sprawling double collection that had intensely moving ballads rubbing shoulders with the most banal rockers) and the muscle-bound monster that was Born In The USA, is the album producer Jim Sampas has chosen for de/re-construction 18 years on. Nebraska's proposed evolution from home-recorded sketches to surround-sound E-Street Band-enhanced workouts never materialised (though such stadium friendly fodder as Born In The USA and Downbound Train did evolve from this particular jean pool), due to Springsteen's dissatisfaction with the results; there was something lost in the translation from the home-made that left its studio counterpart sounding half-baked. Ironically the low-budget antithesis of all that made him a 'star,' Nebraska is the record most fans would pick as The Best of The Boss, the record that's been on-call when life's glossy exterior is peeled away to reveal the grime lurking beneath, hiss, wow, flutter and all. It's this intimacy with the material that leaves much of 'Badlands' without a fighting chance from the outset. By adhering to the chronological sequencing (as I suppose they 'had' to), the spine-chilling title track that details the killing spree of Charles Starkweather is here softened by the less-than-threatening tones of Chrissie Hynde. Much of what follows suffers similarly,that sense of being 'interpreted' rather than 'lived'. Springsteen's achievement was to inhabit his characters, make them real, become their blood. When Hank III shuffles his rockabilly way through Atlantic City he leaves no trace of menace and Los Lobos' Johnny 99 sounds positively overjoyed at the prospect of ending his life behind bars - and, like Son Volt and Deana Carter, they appear to be reading the lyrics from cue-cards, squeezing them into the dullest of twelve-bar blues progressions. Ani DiFranco's utterly misguided take on Used Cars aside, there's nothing here to truly offend, and there are some notable highlights. Former Archers of Loaf frontman, Eric Bachmann (aka Crooked Fingers), aided by Bright Eyes keyboardist Andy LeMaster, adds colour and invention to his interpretation of Mansion on the Hill and Ben Harper finds the folk-ballad in My Father's House, possibly the most emotive reading of all the selections here. With Reason To Believe Aimee Mann and Michael Penn close the set with some depth (Penn's delivery gives you the sense that at least one well-worn copy sits among their collections), before the trio of 'Bonus Tracks' act as a coda to the song cycle. Johnny Cash's authoritative tones add confidence to I'm On Fire (one of BITUSA's surviving greats, penned at the time of Nebraska) and Maverick Raul Malo gives a spirited if faithful reading of Downbound Train (don't visualise a Stetson and you'll get through it) before Damien Jurado and Rose Thomas raise the stakes and practically overshadow what's gone before with their stunning duet Wages of Sin. This track hadn't surfaced until the recent Tracks retrospective box-set, and hence it's not a song so firmly ingrained in the Springsteen canon, giving it perhaps a modicum of hope of standing tall besides the original. Jurado succeeds where most before have failed, becoming the protagonist of the tale, and telling it from within, Thomas' harmony the haunting sub-text. It's a memorable end to an otherwise forgettable, if well-intentioned, collection.
CWAS #7 - Spring 2001