Friday, January 30, 2015

Three great Springsteen covers: "The Ghost of Tom Joad" by Rage Against the Machine, "Racing in the Street" by Patty Griffin, and "Mansion on the Hill" by The National

By Michael J.W. Stickings

(Ah, my on-and-off blogging hiatus continues. Not much new content here recently. But let's get back into it this evening with some music.)

I love Bruce Springsteen, and one of the things I'm doing right now is compiling the best covers of Springsteen songs. Needless to say, there are a lot of Springsteen covers, a lot that are good and a lot that are not good. Some are mediocre, some are just atrocious. Some are merely impersonations, with nothing new to add, some uncover something hidden in the song or otherwise focus on a certain part of it, a certain element, bringing a new twist to it, a new sound -- think,  for example, of Rage Against the Machine's take on "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (my favourite Springsteen song) emphasizing the angry, rebellious, aggressively political streak that didn't stand out in the original acoustic version, a new, much harder version that sounds unlike Springsteen altogether, but a version that obviously hit on one of the truths of that song, as the new, updated version of by Springsteen himself, first live and last year released on High Hopes, lies somewhere in between the original and the Rage version, with Rage guitarist Tom Morello, now a member of The E Street Band, singing it as a duet with Bruce and working his mind-boggling magic with his instrument.

Of course, taking a song in a completely new direction can be a good thing or a bad thing. Some of these covers make no sense and seem forced, but some show just how incredible a songwriter Bruce is, just how universal his songs are, how adaptable they are to alternate interpretations. This doesn't work with everyone. Some singers/bands just don't lend themselves to being covered. I would argue that Pink Floyd, my favourite band, is one of them. There have been efforts, including bluegrass and reggae efforts, but these are at best interesting and at worst insulting, and while there are certainly a few exceptions, Pink Floyd covers tend to be nothing more than pointless impersonations. Listen to anything by a Pink Floyd "tribute" band. The good ones are fine, I suppose, but there's nothing like Pink Floyd, and the tributes are bland, if sincere.

I could go on and on, but let's get back to the point here. Bruce Springsteen is immensely coverable, and of course he has a massive catalogue of songs from which to choose. Just check out the covers they play on Sirius's E Street Radio. For a fantastic full-album effort, check out Dead Man's Town, a "tribute," but so much more, to Born in the U.S.A. -- highlights include the title track, by Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires; "I'm on Fire," by Low; "Glory Days," by Justin Townes Earle; and "Dancing in the Dark," by Nicole Atkins. Or check out lists like this one, and go track some down.

Speaking of "I'm on Fire," that's the widely-covered song that has inspired some of the best covers, including those by Catherine Feeny and Bat for Lashes (like many of Springsteen's songs, it lends itself well to being covered by women), and, yes, Low, and it's also been covered really well by the likes of Johnny Cash, Heather Nova, Mumford & Sons, Keith Urban, Whitehorse, and Passenger. Even the version by John Mayer is really good. Yes, it's just that kind of song.

But let's turn to a few others now, as examples of just how good Springsteen covers can be. Along with Rage's "Tom Joad," here are "Racing in the Street" by Patty Griffin (who also does a fantastic version of "Stolen Car" on her album 1000 Kisses -- her original stuff is awesome, but with that voice and guitar she's just made to do Springsteen covers) and "Mansion on the Hill" by The National (who also seem made to do Springsteen covers alongside their great original work).

I hope you enjoy them. But do go out and search out some others. If you love Bruce like I do, it's a great way to expand your appreciation of his brilliance. And to encounter some really great music in its own right, by some really great artists.

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