Archaeological Digs insist on their intellectual importance. Genre Benders aggressively reject original versions, and put distance (ironic or experimental) between those paying tribute and those to whom tribute is being paid. Gold Watches don't reject original versions aggressively enough, and depend on a certain familiarity for their commercial cachet.

When a tribute album succeeds, then, it succeeds because its producers understand the type of product they're making, and they use that knowledge to their advantage. When a tribute album fails -- follow the bouncing ball here, folks -- it fails because they don't.

Take Gold Watch projects. Because they maintain a strong connection with the original material, they depend on selecting songwriters whose performances aren't definitive or exclusionary and matching them with performers who can pull off interesting interpretations. The Tom Petty, Merle Haggard, and Leonard Cohen tributes succeed on this basis. The Neil Young tribute, on the other hand, falls flat (Neil's style is inseparable from his content, inimitable), as does the Van Morrison (song selection is poor, performances are unimpressive, and the whole thing is queered by the fact that Van himself produced the album).

Last Rites need to toe the line between saccharine memorials and irreverent repossessions of songs that may seem inappropriate. For example, the Harry Nilsson tribute has a great version of "Me and My Arrow" by Adrian Belew, a superbly spiky "One" by Aimee Mann, and moving takes on "Turn On the Radio" (by MOR moron Marc Cohn) and "The Moonbeam Song" (by dependable rootsman Steve Forbert). On the other hand, LaVern Baker has ragged pipes and no reason to wrap them around "Jump in the Fire," and the B-52's frontman Fred Schneider camps up the already unbearably campy "Coconut." In this case, the good and bad counterweigh each other; a mixed-bag tribute album is no cause for shame.

So that's the system. Now let's pull two recent tributes off the line -- the Rodgers and Springsteen product -- and put them through the wringer.

Rodgers is older, and deader, so he goes first. As we've discussed, Archaeological Digs have something of a head start. They assume that their subject merits rediscovery by the record-buying public. The liner notes (written by Bob Dylan, who executive-produced the album) make this strategy entirely visible. Jimmie Rodgers, Dylan argues, is one of the legendary figures of country music, as relevant today as he was 70 years ago, and music fans ignore him at their peril.

Dylan picks his way through "Blue Eyed Jane" with the same intensity he's brought to his recent solo acoustic albums. Dwight Yoakam contributes a tenacious, terrific "T Is for Texas." And Steve Earle -- who covered Rodgers's "Blue Yodel 9" on 1991's superb Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator -- rollicks his way through "In the Jailhouse Now." Almost every song works. The few exceptions -- Bono's breathy "Dreaming with Tears in My Eyes" and Iris DeMent's hicked-up "Miss The Mississippi and You" -- simply drive home how superb the rest of this collection is.

There's no accounting for taste. If you hate American songcraft, or country-flavored roots music, you may not get past Willie Nelson's silky cover of "Peach Pickin' Time Down in Georgia." But let's hope not. Intolerance is no reason to reject a collection of songs this vibrant.

The Springsteen album is a different matter altogether. As a Golden Watch, this collection relies upon a felicitous pairing of songwriter and performer. Which it doesn't get.

Bruce is part of the problem. Some songwriters -- R&B song factory Dan Penn, for example, or Lennon and McCartney -- don't necessarily perform the definitive versions of their own songs; Springsteen does. It's not hard to imagine someone else singing "Do Right Woman" (Aretha, for example) or "Eleanor Rigby" (Aretha, for example), but it is hard to imagine even Aretha pulling off "Thunder Road." Springsteen's compositions are idiosyncratic, often heavily reliant on his quirky phrasing, his steel-wool voice, his varied arrangements, and his powerhouse band.

As a result, it's something of a fool's errand to charge ahead with an album of Springsteen covers. But One Step Up, Two Steps Back has a gimmick. Two, in fact. The collection is keyed to Springsteen's 48th birthday. If that's not amazing enough -- "My God Martha, it's Bruce Springsteen's 48th birthday. What are we doing just sitting here?" -- there's also a clever distinction between the two discs. See, One Step Up is full of new recordings. Two Steps Back collects Bruce covers recorded over the last twenty years.

Do the high-concept organization and the clever hijacking of a Springsteen song title make the Boss any easier to cover? Nope. And to make matters worse, the album's producers have chosen a bunch of lunkheads to carry out this mission impossible. The new disc offers has-beens the likes of Nils Lofgren (who turns in a mediocre cover of "Wreck on the Highway") and the Smithereens (a timid, lazy "Downbound Train"), and never-will-bes such as Martin Zellar ("Darkness on the Edge of Town") and Paul Cebar ("One Step Up").

The old disc has musty warhorses, including Joe Cocker (who treats "Human Touch" like it's "When a Man Loves a Woman"), Clarence Clemons (who butchers "Savin' Up"), David Bowie (unconvincingly jaunty on "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City"), and Gary "U.S." Bonds (unimpressively soggy on "Love's on the Line"). Now and again the performances make sense. John Wesley Harding's take on "Jackson Cage" confirms that he is still doing his best to sound exactly like Elvis Costello, and it confirms that this decision is a wise one. And Donna Summer's "Protection," which shouldn't work at all, does.

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