Shovels & Rope, “Johnny 99” b/w “Bad As Me”

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Videos by American Songwriter

Shovels & Rope
“Johnny 99” b/w “Bad As Me”
(Third Man)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Jack White’s Third Man Records has pressed some inspired and intriguing cover versions to vinyl on its Blue Series over the years — Laura Marling performing Jackson C. Frank, Wanda Jackson taking on Amy Winehouse, and Tom Jones singing Howlin’ Wolf, to name a few. South Carolina’s Shovels & Rope continue the tradition with two sides of covers on their new seven-inch, but the shoulders that Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent have chosen to stand on — Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits — are particularly tall, even among giants. For as difficult as it is to do justice to a Springsteen classic, however, his finest songs are also so perfectly written, they’re kind of impossible to ruin. Such is the curious middle ground the duo treads on “Johnny 99” — Hearst and Trent’s slightly beefed-up alt-country take on the tune maintains the bluesy integrity of the song, yet removes a lot of the anguish and desperation. It’s not until the final verse, in which the duo slows the tempo and drops out the drum beat in favor of a soaring gospel approach, that the cover becomes something more than a bit of frivolous fun. More successful is their take on Tom Waits’ “Bad As Me,” which more or less maintains the integrity of the original, yet with a stripped-down and soulful touch. Each track more or less works, if never transcending the original, but at least Shovels & Rope had the good sense to start with great source material.

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