Saturday, February 18, 2012

Cover-versies: 'Atlantic City' by The Hold Steady and Charley Horse

I will be upfront here in admitting that I am not one of these people who genuflect in the direction of Bruce Springsteen. Oh, I like him well enough, and I like a number of his songs; it's just that, much like Adam Carolla, I think his palette tends to be limited.

That being said, one of my favorite songs of his is 'Atlantic City.' This is Bruce trying to channel his dear friend--and my personal hero--Warren Zevon, and channeling him exceedingly well. This is a great example of blue collar noir, a story of a man so desperate in his poverty that he's about to travel down to the titular, mobbed up place because he met a guy and is going to do a favor for him to find a more prosperous life of crime. Yes, it's a terrible choice, but the POV character--caught in a marriage gone cold, and with 'debts no honest man can pay'--has come to believe it's his only way out.

Now, as is tradition, before we begin our discussion of these covers, here's the original....

I will always be chilled by the assurance that 'everything dies, that's a fact/but everything that dies maybe comes back,' backed up by those distant, echoey howls of Bruce.

Flash forward to a couple of years ago, and the album War Child-Heroes, a benefit album where a major artist handpicked a new artist or band to cover a song of his/her/theirs. Bruce Springsteen chose The Hold Steady....and here's their version.

I've always said that The Hold Steady were the best Bruce Springsteen cover band that never existed, and here's your proof. Lead vocalist Craig Finn's performance has much of the same quality as Springsteen's and there's a definitive continuity to the original....

But there are certain choices made by the band that makes this version their own. The Hold Steady swaps out Springsteen's plaintive guitar strums for a piano, which gives the song a larger, fuller sound. They add a very Clarence Clemmons-esque sax solo, a choice that enhances the Springsteen-iness while also separating it from the original. I guess the fact that this is undisputably a band playing the song makes it unique right from the start--the impression I got from the original is that its the inner monologue from the POV character with those echoey howls is his conscience, the 'everything that dies' he debates about in the chorus, protesting his choice; with the fuller arrangement that sense is gone.

For a while, the Hold Steady version was my favorite version of the song...and then an Australian duo recording under the name Charlie Horse released their version. There's no video, but you can stream (and download, as it's free) the song here:

MAN, I love this version. Once more, we have a band that makes distinctive musical changes to the arrangement. Instead of the piano, we now get this ominous, primal drum beat that makes you feel like it's the literal end of the world...which, to our POV character, it is. The guitars here are tortured, and are a successful stand in for those echoey howls I loved in the Springsteen orginal. The whole arrangement during the chorus has this tumbling, falling quality that reflects the imploding buildings we saw in the Springsteen video. And the vocals of Crystal Rose...

Can I say I'm in love with this woman's voice on this song? Part of it is that Rose, unlike so many people who try to cover Springsteen (including The Hold Steady's Craig Finn), doesn't try to emulate The Boss, which creates an entirely new vibe for this, and an entirely new backstory here. The fact that we've got Rose's throaty, more defiant growl puts a different nuance to that key line about doing a favor for a guy...while we imagine the nature of the favor is going to be more carnal, we also imagine that said favor is going to result with our little Crystal gaining more of an upper hand than Springsteen's down on his luck schmoe. Since its her making herself all pretty, it might not be a mission of resignation, but of empowerment and revenge.

I honestly thought no other version of this song would replace the Hold Steady's as my favorite cover. I thought wrong. And I'm really, really happy that I was.


  1. Hey Thomas, just saw this, thanks a lot!

    1. Wow...didn't expect a comment from the actual subject of one of these things....

      Well, you're welcome!