For many 1984's "Born in the USA" is the point of entry in the works of Bruce Springsteen and was the music that defined that decade. For others the album is recognised as the breakthrough into stadium superstardom for the Boss yet does not come near topping the list of all his albums. Part of the reason for this stems from the shadow cast by the desolate beauty and emotion of its predecessor, the dark and acoustic "Nebraska". Many would argue with the passage of years that those barebones songs of torment and isolation are a far more significant work in the Springsteen canon. It is interesting then to have "Born in the USA" interpreted in this enjoyable tribute album "Dead Mans Town" in a fashion which is nearer to the spare ethic of "Nebraska" than the rocking bombast of the original.
Granted a couple of songs here are average not least the Quaker City Nighthawks version of "Darlington County" which is pretty straightforward bar room rock. So to the pedestrian cover of "My Hometown" by the North Mississippi Allstars. But to be fair the majority of largely new American talent present do an admirable job of taking these famous songs and giving them a new interpretative sheen and polish. The tone is set by the excellent Jason Isbell formerly of the Drive by Truckers who pairs back the anthemic title track into a haunting alt country anthem punctuated with Amanda Shires ghostly violin. Equally good is the deconstruction performed by Apache Relay in their spare folk rock version of "Cover Me" which is all slide guitars, mandolins and vocal harmonies. Blitzen Trapper's "Working on the Highway" takes on the shape of a Little Feat style funky stomp, while Duluth's finest "Low" deliver a superb chiming version of "I'm on fire" a song which has been waiting for Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker to infuse with their slowcore philosophy. The standout here is from Austin based folk singer-songwriter Joe Pug and his striking cover of "Downbound Train" which could grow to be as loved as much as the original. When it comes to Trampled by Turtles they are cover experts (check out their version of Arcade Fire's, "Rebellion, Lies") and they do a sterling job on a rootsy "I'm going down". Possibly the most difficult task on "Dead Mans Town" falls to Brooklyn based singer Nicole Atkins who turns the huge hit "Dancing in the Dark" into a Roy Orbison sounding melodrama that could have also been used to soundtrack "Twin Peaks". Well done Ms Atkins on achieving the impossible and a respectful nod in addition goes to he beautifully paired back version of "Glory Days" by Justin Townes Earle which is almost transformed into a different song.
To stress again if you desire to hear a covers album of one of the Boss's most famous album with all the originals in their rocking glory this album is going to frustrate, so avoid like the plague. Alternatively if you are prepared to give these sparse Americana versions of Springsteen's tracks a fair hearing you will note that they retain the honest integrity of his songwriting and give a invigorating twist to some very famous songs. You suspect that Springsteen himself would approve as he is no stranger to providing his own acoustic variations on many of his songs. As a result "Dead Man's Town" is that exception to the rule, an almost consistently good tribute album by artists who should be highly commended for their decision not to play it straight.
Review by Red on Black