No Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

The other day I had a vision. I was standing on a vast plain, and the plain was a pale brown that verged on yellow. All of a sudden a huge black block fell out of the sky and clocked me. Down I went. Just before I lost consciousness, I looked at the block. Written on its side were two words: Tribute Album.

I think I know what the dream means. And I think you do too.
If you're a rabid record buyer, or a casual record buyer, or you've ever been in a record store, or you can even imagine what a record store looks like on the inside (that's right, shelves -- yep, records -- no, there's no ice sculpture, but it's an understandable mistake), you've probably figured out that tribute albums are pretty hot these days.

Even as you read this, record executives in cool clothing are pressing a new batch and preparing to market them down your throat. Examples? The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers (Egyptian/Columbia) is filled with contemporary rock and country artists like John Mellencamp, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam, and the late Jerry Garcia performing the songs of the country pioneer known as the Singing Brakeman. One Step Up, Two Steps Back features -- you got it -- contemporary rock and soul artists performing the songs of Bruce Springsteen. There are also tribute albums devoted to the songs of Iggy Pop (We Will Fall, with contributions from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Joey Ramone, and a reunited Blondie), Kurt Weill (September Songs, which includes performances by Nick Cave, Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, and PJ Harvey), and the Police (Regatta Mondatta, which features versions of Police songs by, um, contemporary reggae artists).

And that's just in the last month. By my incredibly hasty count, no fewer than 100 artists have been the subject of tributes released in the U.S. since 1992. Feeling swamped? You aren't alone. Given the deluge, it seems worthwhile to engage in a bit of critical damming. The following is a simple system of classification -- not to be confused with a flow chart -- that divides tribute albums into six basic categories.

I. Last Rites: Someone dies, you release a tribute. Simple, right? Many tributes trail the tragic deaths of stars like Stevie Ray Vaughan (Hats Off to Stevie Ray), Doc Pomus (Till the Night Is Gone), and Harry Nilsson (For the Love of Harry).

II. Nostalgia Spasms: Any tribute that finds younger artists covering the previous generation's stars, either to pay homage or to boost their own reputations through association with the supremely gifted (call it the "coattail effect"). The list is impressive and forever growing: Jimi Hendrix (Stone Free), Led Zeppelin (Encomium), Kiss (Kiss My Ass), Elton John (Two Rooms), Marvin Gaye (I Want You), and the Velvet Underground (15 Minutes).

III. Wet Nurses: These projects raise health insurance money for ailing stars like multiple sclerosis-sufferer Victoria Williams (Sweet Relief) and paraplegics Vic Chesnutt (Sweet Relief II -- The Gravity of the Situation) and Curtis Mayfield (Tribute to Curtis Mayfield and People Get Ready).

IV. Archaeological Digs: These unearth the songs of artists buried by history or critical opinion, whether Charles Mingus (Weird Nightmare) or the Carpenters (If I Were a Carpenter).

V. Genre Benders: Sometimes you can make old art new with radical recontextualization, whether it's a country tribute to the Eagles (Common Thread), a bluegrass tribute to the Grateful Dead (Pickin' on the Dead), the London Symphony Orchestra performing the songs of Pink Floyd (Us and Them: The Symphonic Music of Pink Floyd), or classical arrangements of Split Enz tunes (Enzso). Genre Benders can also be album-length experiments like the Coolies' Dig?, which parodied Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits, or the The's Hanky Panky, which reupholstered eleven Hank Williams chestnuts.

VI. Gold Watches: Relatively straightforward tributes that honor a living artist who has written a bunch of good songs, either as a career-capper or not. (Gold Watches often incorporate the coattail effect of Nostalgia Spasms.) Examples include tributes to Tom Petty (You Got Lucky), Leonard Cohen (I'm Your Fan, Tower of Song), Richard Thompson (Beat the Retreat), Neil Young (The Bridge), Merle Haggard (Tulare Dust), and Van Morrison (No Prima Donna). The occasional album-length tribute also pops up here, such as Pussy Galore's Exile on Main Street, which copied the Stones' classic note for note, or Tapestry Revisited, which sicced a dozen new soul and pop artists on the Carole King classic.

So those are the six main types of tribute album. It's an easy classification system that you're welcome to use at home at no cost. Now, let's take a look at the recent crop. The Iggy Pop and Springsteen tributes are classic Type VI projects (Gold Watches, in case you're still memorizing), the Jimmie Rodgers and Kurt Weill are Type IV tributes (that's an Archaeological Dig), and the Regatta Mondatta is a Type V (or Genre Bender).

Each of the six categories works on record buyers in a unique way. Last Rites have the heft of tragedy behind them. Nostalgia Spasms exploit the culture's need to overvalue its recent past. Wet Nurses combine a lesser form of Last Rite tear-jerking with intimations that record buyers can actually change the fortunes of real people by purchasing the product. It's the same sort of veiled emotive Ponzi-scheme allure that AmEx's Charge Against Hunger feeds on.

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.

But the real failure of One Step Up, Two Steps Back lies in its lead single -- a miserable version of "Atlantic City" sung by former BoDean Kurt Neumann. He turns in such an uninspired, ill-conceived performance that he singlehandedly disproves the song's chorus. "Maybe everything that dies someday comes back"? No, sometimes things die and they stay dead. Interest in this cover, for instance, dies after the first 30 seconds.

The tone is as wrong as tone can be, replacing Springsteen's ghostly, mythic pessimism with an antiseptic optimism. Can you imagine Night of the Hunter with Chris Farley in the Robert Mitchum role? Of course you can't. It wouldn't be Night of the Hunter any more. And this isn't "Atlantic City." It's Donald Trump's Atlantic City. The Band covered the same song a few years ago, and their version was fine, if not revelatory. Neumann's cheery butchering makes the Band's version seem revelatory.

The Neumann cover is so awful that it taints the rest of the Springsteen album. Or perhaps it's just that many of the other covers are equally awful. If you can get through the entire 28-song atrocity, you'll begin to question the title -- it's not obvious how any of this is one step up, and it's much more than two steps back. Perhaps the collection's producers should have spun the album's name out of another Springsteen song. But who, you ask, would buy an album named Don't Cover Me? Exactly my point.


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