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Various Artists

Badlands - A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska – 2000 (Sub Pop)

Reviewed by Ken Burke

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Bruce Springsteen's 1982 LP "Nebraska" was his home-recorded lo-fi masterpiece. A stylistic departure from his the E-Street Band exploits, this penetrating Woody Guthrie-influenced outing drew compelling blue-collar narratives from the American heartland's anti-hero legends. Commercially, the Boss would scale greater heights. Artistically, he never again fashioned a work of such sustained personal vision. All-star tributes to specific landmark albums are generally mixed blessings. This one is no exception.

On the negative side, Hank Williams III turns Springsteen's desperate "Atlantic City" into a hideous fiddle-sawing ditty from his illustrious grandfather's era. Alt.-country crooner Son Volt transforms the wordy, Chuck Berryish "Open All Night" into a torturously slow honkytonk waltz. Indie pop queen Ani DiFranco undermines the evocative "Used Cars," with a too fragile vocal, and the synth-oriented Crooked Fingers pretty much wreck "Mansion On The Hill" with a neurotic Bryan Ferry approach.

By contrast, Los Lobos imbue "Johnny 99" with catchy roots rock spirit only hinted at by Springsteen's original. Dar Williams' version of "Highway Patrolman" chillingly captures the song's ebbs of conflict and remorse. Especially delicious is the sense of surreptitious escape conjured by Deana Carter's rendition of "State Trooper," a classic road song.

Three Springsteen numbers from later eras are also included. Johnny Cash (who cut a stellar version of "Johnny 99" at Columbia), weighs in with a gruffly sensual "I'm On Fire" that's sure to raise a smile. Finally, Raul Malo of The Mavericks delivers a stunningly emotive slice of modern country with the beautifully sung "Downbound Train," the set's true highlight. Springsteen's original disc was flawed, but brilliant. This tribute is erratic though occasionally quite good and recommended to fans of the individual artists.