Various Artists

Dead Man's Town: A Tribute to Born in the U.S.A.

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Dead Man's Town: A Tribute to Born in the U.S.A. Review

by Mark Deming

When Bruce Springsteen's album Born in the U.S.A. was released in the summer of 1984, it became an immediate smash hit and confirmed Springsteen's status as one of the biggest and most important stars in American rock. But it was also a widely misunderstood work, especially the title song, embraced by many as a patriotic celebration of America when it was in fact a bitter condemnation by Springsteen of how his nation betrayed the soldiers who returned from Vietnam with few options and little hope. The messages of the songs were sometimes hard to hear through the bombast of the performances (Springsteen uses bombast to better advantage than practically any musician of his generation) and the polish of the production (especially the sharp report of the drums and the layers of keyboards), so producers Logan Rogers and Evan Schlansky decided to give the songs of Born in the U.S.A. a new spin by inviting a handful of contemporary roots rock artists to cover them in their own styles. On Dead Man's Town: A Tribute to Born in the U.S.A., the performers strip the songs down to their basics, letting acoustic instruments carry the bulk of the melodies and putting the lyrics up front. Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires' interpretation of "Born in the U.S.A." (inspired by an arrangement Springsteen has used in his acoustic performances) certainly kicks off the album on an impressive note, making the song just as dark and tragic as it was meant to be, but most of the rest of the tracks are considerably less effective. Say what you want about Springsteen as a performer, but his work has never lacked passion, and passion is what drives much of his best music. And that's what's missing from much of Dead Man's Town; most of the artists have not only cut back on the guitars and drums, they've also dialed back on the emotional intensity of the songs, and that does them no favors, making this music sound sleepy instead of quietly forceful. There are a few exceptions, most notably Justin Townes Earle's mournful "Glory Days," which truly sounds like the musings of a man stuck in a midlife crisis; Low's tense and atmospheric take on "I'm on Fire"; Joe Pug's gutsy if minimal version of "Downbound Train"; and Quaker City Nighthawks' "Darlington County," which treats the tune like a loose-limbed shaggy-dog story. But ultimately, Dead Man's Town is a good idea executed poorly, an effort to peel back the veneer from Springsteen's songs that manages to toss away much of the core at the same time.

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