On The Record: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Only the Strong Survive,’ plus Alex Chilton & Melissa Carper

To the uninitiated, Bruce Springsteen’s new Only the Strong Survive CD may come as a surprise. Aside from 2006’s Pete Seeger–inspired We Shall Overcome, this is the first album of covers he has issued in his half-century career, and its focus on soul and R&B represents a bit of a departure from the rock music that has been his mainstay. 

In fact, though, Springsteen has long been known for taking major detours that have led to equally major successes, ranging from his acoustic Nebraska album to his one-man Broadway show to his bestselling memoir; this covers set is just his latest side trip. As for the focus on soul classics from the sixties, seventies, and eighties, while he hasn’t previously recorded them on his studio albums, they have long been incorporated in his concerts, which have featured such songs as Smokey Robinson’s “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” Marvin Gaye’s “It Takes Two,” and Mitch Ryder’s “Devil with the Blue Dress.”

The new album – more a heartfelt tribute to the music Springsteen grew up with than an attempt to reinvent it – is a home run for at least three reasons. First, he delivers nuanced vocals that illuminate the material and offer a reminder (as if one were needed) that he is just as good a singer as he is a guitarist, songwriter, and band leader. Second, the 15 song selections (whittled down, he recently told Howard Stern, from 55 contenders) are inspired. And third, he has assembled a terrific backup crew for this project that includes six horn players, a string section, and half a dozen backup vocalists, among them the now 87-year-old Sam Moore, whom Springsteen has called “probably the greatest living soul singer of that [sixties] era.”

If you lived through that decade and the two that followed with a radio on, you’ll need no introduction to many of these songs. Most of them address the joys and pains that romantic love can bring but two are about the music itself: “Soul Days,” a Dobie Gray number that Springsteen ends with shout-outs to Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, Sam and Dave, Aretha Franklin, and Arthur Conley; and “Nightshift,” the Commodores’ tribute to Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye. He follows the latter number with Frank Wilson’s “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do),” which he recently called “one of the greatest undiscovered Motown songs I’ve ever heard [and] one of my favorite songs on the record.”

Springsteen nails “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” which he apparently knows from the great Walker Brothers version, not Frankie Valli’s, and the Four Tops’ “7 Rooms of Gloom” and “When She Was My Girl.” He also winningly covers Jerry Butler’s title cut and “Hey Western Union Man”; Tyrone Davis’s “Turn Back the Hands of Time”; William Bell’s “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” (better known from the Billy Idol cover) and “Any Other Way”; the Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain”; Ben E. King’s “Don’t Play That Song”; Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”; and the Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together,” one of many classic songs co-written by the late Johnny Bristol

Springsteen’s comments in recent interviews and “Vol. 1” in tiny type on the album’s cover suggest that he’s planning a sequel to this CD. After hearing the joyous Only the Strong Survive, you’ll likely be counting the days until it arrives.

Also Noteworthy

Alex ChiltonLive in London: Encore Edition. By 1980, Alex Chilton’s career with Big Star had been over for five years, and he was reportedly spending more time drinking than recording or performing. He did, however, manage to fly to London that year – in his pajamas, according to this CD’s liner notes – where he delivered two shows with a hastily assembled band that included members of the Vibrators and the Soft Boys. The second of these gigs resulted in a 14-track 1982 album that is now being reissued with nine bonus tracks, all from the first show.

The concerts are not particularly well recorded or mixed and the performances are sloppy at times, but there’s likely still enough here to interest most fans of Chilton, who died in 2010. Certainly, his eclecticism is on full display with a program that embraces everything from self-penned Big Star classics (“September Gurls” and “Kanga Roo”) to rockabilly (Benny Joy’s “Hey High School Baby,” from 1957) to reimagined traditional country music (the Carter Family’s “No More the Moon Shines on Lorena”). Also on the program is some sixties-style garage rock, including the Seeds’ “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” and a raucous version of “The Letter,” the Box Tops song that gave Chilton a No. 1 hit when he was all of 16.

Melissa CarperRamblin’ Soul. A collaborator of Melissa Carper has dubbed her “HillBillie Holiday,” but that nickname just hints at her many influences, which in addition to jazz, country, western swing, bluegrass, and honkytonk music include R&B, rockabilly, and early rock. Her personality-soaked, slightly scratchy vocals are front and center on this fine latest release, which features a consummate band and a program that embraces two songs by friends, a reworking of Odetta’s “Hit or Miss,” and 10 catchy, self-penned numbers. Several of them, including “That’s My Only Regret” and “Boxers on Backwards,” are good enough to be mistaken for old standards.

Carper says the mostly upbeat album reflects “the new appreciation I had for the freedom to travel around the country and perform.” Her wanderlust and high spirits come through not only in the title track but in songs like “1980 Dodge Van” and “I Do What I Wanna.” It’s not difficult to imagine her playing in a Texas roadhouse or, in an earlier time, sharing a bill with Patsy Cline or Hank Williams.

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains five decades’ worth of music reviews, interviews, and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and EncountersLennon on Lennon: Conversations with John LennonLeonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.