Covers Volume 1 – Only The Strong Survive 2LP
As open as Bruce Springsteen’s fans have become to the singer’s experimentations and his desire to push boundaries as the tape rolls in the studio, that doesn’t mean the singer’s fans are incapable of being apprehensive when they hear how far from the norm The Boss has strayed “this time,” in advance of hearing the results. Certainly, when word got out that Springsteen was releasing an album of R&B and Soul covers, those little uncertain hairs on the back of listeners’ collective neck began to stand at attention; after all, no one would argue that Springsteen doesn’t have soul, it’s just the matter of Springsteen taking the Soul committed to tape by others and trying to present it their way (not his own) which feels like it could yield questionable results.
As the album opens with its title track, listeners are basically presented with everything they need to know about Only The Strong Survive; the purpose of the album (which seems to be to buck any and every possible trend or expectation that could be associated with the album) and everyone’s rolls in the running. From the start, Springsteen sticks close to the tone of the source material, producer/multi-instrumentalist Ron Aniello goes out of his way to follow suit and a team of horn players and back-up singers bring the right color and form to the proceedings to make it sound real and genuine. As unlikely as it might sound too, Springsteen wrings just the right amount of Jersey Soul into his rendition of “Only The Strong Survive” to make the desire to recreate a sound that the singer has never attempted before feel like a genuine (and so meticulously calculated) attempt; whether they’re expecting it or not (whether they’re fans or not), those who start with Only The Strong Survive will be hooked right away.
…And the hits just keep on coming, as the side continues. After the title cut, “Soul Days” will make listeners do a double-take as Springsteen mutates into a genuine “Plastic Soul” figure not at all far off of Bowie landed on when he attempted to achieve similar styling, and The Boss cross-wires some genuine and truly excellent tones into the mix for “Do I Love You (Yes I Do)” as well as into a closer-to-Elvis rendition of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” which closes the side. Throughout those cuts, the Soul and R&B elements get downplayed but, again, the similarities to Elvis Presley’s time with Stax are impossible to miss and the singer really throws his voice into the performance ; thereby really extending the vowel presence in the vocals.
The Stax influence endures through the fantastic cover of Tyrone Davis’ “Turn Back The Hands Of Time” which opens the B-side of Only The Strong Survive. There, listeners won’t be able to deny that Springsteen’s tone and style is at its pinnacle as strings flourish and win hearts, and really only diminishes slightly when “When She Was My Girl” follows “…Hands Of Time.” There, the presentation and performance just come across as perfectly expected and canny; it’s not bad, but it’s not as good as it could be either. “Western Union Man” (which follows “When She Was My Girl”) is miles better again, and the flourishes which dominate “Don’t Play That Song” are a perfectly exciting event which guarantees that listeners will follow onto the album’s second plate. While the tone of Springsteen’s voice brushes comically close to that of Tony Bennett there, it’s still hard to discredit because the joy in the performance is both genuine and obvious – the amount of fun that everyone is having as the tape rolls makes the song absolutely infectious.
That “Tony Bennett” kind of tone which manifested on the B-side of Covers Volume 1 – Only The Strong Survive holds up in a less-than-ideal way as soon as stylus catches groove on the album’s C-side, and begins to wear a little thin through the running of “Any Other Way.” While the strings and horns used on the album really brought an exciting novelty to the first disc in this set, it just doesn’t play as well on LP2, and the forms sound more and more like a Vegas show – which is not at all Springsteen’s forte. The cover of The Four Tops’ “7 Rooms of Gloom” suffers from exactly the same problems as its predecessor, but has the added downside of being even more overwrought. Happily, the set closes with excellent and lovelorn “Someday We’ll Be Together,” where the song really sprints for the finish and leaves listeners feeling good about Only The Strong Survive as a whole. As soon as the song starts, the string accompaniment and Ron Aniello’s bass line up an instantly attention-grabbing backdrop before a wall of vocals blasts out the instantly engaging vocal hook that everyone knows. That intro is fantastically gratifying, but Springsteen’s own vocal is the real gem here; every breath and every line is meticulously presented and the husky growl which has always been present in The Boss’ voice has been gently smoothed and refined here to more appropriately suit the song. “Someday We’ll Be Together” ends up being the ideal closer for the set; as the song begins to fade, listeners who have run front-to-back with Only The Strong Survive will find themselves wishing that the D-side of the album contained more covers and not just some complimentary etchings.
…And that’s the funny thing about Only The Strong Survive; there’s no no question that the album isn’t perfect, but it is so good that listeners will still want more of the stuff that Springsteen is pushing here. There’s no doubt that the singer put a lot of heart and soul into this work and, after it ends, listeners won’t deny that the idea could do with further examination. Here’s hoping that that the singer plans on doing something like this again. [Bill Adams]
Bruce Springsteen’s Covers Volume 1 – Only The Strong Survive 2LP set is out now. Buy it here, directly from the artist’s official store.