Picking my five favorite Springsteen covers didn’t sound like it would be that hard a task — until I started thinking about it. (That’s typically when I get into trouble, with the thinking.) It’s not that they’re all so terrific, but it’s amazing how hard it is to find a true clunker. I’d say that’s a testament to how these songs are built — it’s hard to ruin them. Although some people have come darn close, and that’s a subject for another post.
That said, there are a few that, for whatever reason, continue to stand out in my mind — covers that took a chance or helped illuminate the heart of the song. Like all the best covers, they reflect the personality of the singer as much as they pay tribute to the original. And I’m sure tomorrow I’ll think of five others I forgot.
1) Dion, “Book of Dreams.” I love how Springsteen’s music can feel at home in so many different styles and genres. From Dion’s 2000 album Deja Nu, this doo-wop take feels current and right out of 1959 at the same time.
2) Melissa Etheridge, “Born to Run.” From The Concert for New York City, this is maybe the only version of the song that comes close to capturing the full-throated energy of the original — not bad for a solo performance. (Runner up goes to Frank Turner for his version of “Thunder Road,” another heartfelt acoustic take.)
3) The Format, “For You.” I’ve been taking credit lately for discovering fun., a claim I share with every blogger who was writing about indie music in 2008. That’s when The Format, Nate Ruess’ first group, was chugging away in relative anonymity, and they contributed this track for the Light of Day tribute album. When I first posted about this song back then, I recall that some visitors were turned off by the way Ruess goes all hoedown on us halfway through, but I think that’s part of the charm.
4) Camera Obscura, “Tougher Than The Rest.” There’s something about Tracyanne Campbell’s voice that fits this song, from 2009’s The Sweetest Thing, just perfectly — the sweet Scottish lilt that sounds just damaged enough to make you want to hug her. You don’t quite believe that she’s tougher than the rest, but you don’t really care. (In a similar vein is Hem’s stunningly beautiful version of “Valentine’s Day” — I can’t find audio, but you can buy it on Amazon for 89 cents.)
5) Steve Earle, “State Trooper.” “Haunting” is a word that gets overused when talking about Nebraska covers — let’s face it, the music is spooky — but Earle earns the adjective here. On the closing track from his seminal 1986 album Guitar Town, you get the sense that he knows a thing or two about being stopped by flashing lights on the side of a dark highway. Nice live version here, but seek out the original too.
Bonus track: Josh Ritter, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Because to cover Bruce Springsteen in Asbury Park when Bruce Springsteen is sitting at the bar takes some guts, man. And hearing just how great this song sounds makes me want to paraphrase what Bruce said at Bob Dylan’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction: If some young guy released “Working on a Dream” today, they’d be calling him the new Bruce Springsteen. (Do yourself a favor and check out Ritter’s live “The River” also.)
Up next: Favorite covers as chosen by Blogness readers — make sure to check back!