Badlands: A Tribute To Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska
Sub Pop Records, 2000
REVIEW BY: Matthew Turk
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/15/2001
This is the worst collection of Springsteen songs I've ever heard. I'm not sure what the producer - I won't name names here, but he was involved with "Songs," the book a few years back - was thinking, but I imagine he must have told every single person who recorded for it to rely on gimmicky voice tricks and a tempo that would make Roger Waters roll his eyes.
The first song, by virtue of being the first, manages to work despite the plodding tempo. Where Springsteen made the song "Nebraska" ring with emotion, Chrissie Hynde and Adam Seymour make me want to shoot myself. Springsteen was always able to mush about six million words into a single line of a verse and make it sound at least nearly natural, but these two are totally unable to.
The second track has some redeeming merit. Hank Williams III takes "Atlantic City" and puts a country twist on it - complete with country fried Dylan sounding vocals. It's really not terrible; it's a bit uninspired, and doesn't do much with the lyrics, but it's a cut above the first track. Crooked Fingers take "Mansion On The Hill" and stick some U2-esque piano and reverse-noises underneath it, which is actually a very interesting take. What is not very interesting, or even very expressive, is the yet-again plodding interpretation of the lyrics (this coupled with the fact that about two minutes in they drop in a sound that belonged on Pretty Hate Machine!)
"Johnny 99" has never been done well except by Springsteen, and maybe Johnny Cash (more on him later.) Los Lobos try to infuse it with raunchy saxophones, but the vocals again fail to deliver. The lyrics are satirical, sort of bouncy and gleefully evil. Los Lobos make it sound like a joke that flopped.
And then we reach the part of the album where they toss female singers at us like tomatoes at a Loggins and Messina concert. Every single one relies on some cheap voice trickery - Dar Williams does the good ol' falsetto double-tracking (underneath yet another laboriously tempoed track.) I love "Highway Patrolman" - it's a great song. Her version is actually better than I expected; and in the context of the album it's even a bit of a break. (Ok, I admit it - I'm a sucker for double-tracking, especially falsetto.) The ending is a nice climax, as well - both lyrically and musically.
Ani DiFranco, an artist I normally love to listen to, decided for some reason to speak - not sing - every line of "Used Cars" through one of those megaphone type filters (you know the kind - "Winnnnchester Cathedral... You're bringin' me dow-own...") The song lasts for about eight minutes too long, and none of it is enjoyable. The doodling guitar in the background could have been interesting, but it's clearly meant as support and not counterpoint.
"Open All Night," though slow, works. It's not great, but I like the way the bouncy vocals bring us up and down with the syllables. "Reason To Believe" was a great example of Springsteen's wry sense of humor; but here, they overproduce and make it sound like a genuine attempt at hopefulness. Maybe my interpreation is a bit inaccurate - but any song that talks about a guy poking a dead dog with a stick certainly isn't taking itself seriously. A short coda of songs originally recorded during the Nebraska sessions was a healthy addition; Johnny Cash's "I'm On Fire" is one of the few points in this album's favor. The Man in Black has a voice far big enough to encompass the delightful lecherousness expressed in the song.
"Downbound Train" isn't anything to write home about; the verse that expresses essentially bottomless sorrow doesn't come across as such. It's a decent cover, but it doesn't say much within the song. If I were choosing songs to record from the Nebraska sessions, I probably would have chosen "Vietnam" - the original "Born In The U.S.A." - but they did not.
Nebraska was originally great not only because of the lyrical quality, but the rawness expressed in the delivery. No polished demo can compete with the deep-seated honesty implicit in one guy sitting there, sucking on a harmonica and strumming a guitar (a bit clumsily, it may seem.) In addition, while individual songs are able to work on their own, the continuity given the subject matter through a single voice should not be downplayed - I suspect that a single artist doing a full-length tribute to Nebraska would have succeeded far more ably than this. As it is, it's a set of covers with no tribute.