Sunday, May 6, 2012

CD Odyssey Disc 396: Johnny Cash

I’ve had a lovely and restful Sunday.  Earlier this afternoon Sheila and I watched “Thor” and we are just home from going to the theatre to see “The Avengers.”

I grew up reading The Avengers comic book, and it is a great that movie making technology can finally faithfully represent them in live action on the movie screen.

But this isn’t a movie review website it’s about music, so let’s get on with the show.   

Disc 396 is…American Recordings (I)
Artist: Johnny Cash

Year of Release: 1994

What’s Up With The Cover?:  Johnny stands in a field, with a guitar and what I assume are his favourite dogs.  I’m more of a cat person, but Johnny strikes a suitably imposing glower, so I’m not going to argue with him.

How I Came To Know It: I’ve known Johnny Cash since I was a kid, but I was introduced to the American  Recordings series late, when Volume IV (reviewed back at Disc 242) released a video for “Hurt.”  From there, it was just me drilling backward through the collection.

How It Stacks Up:  I have six Johnny Cash albums, but one is a live record and another is a best of.  The others are the aforementioned quartet of American Recordings.  Of those four, I’d put this one third.

Rating: 3 stars

For those who didn’t read my review of American Recordings IV, and can’t be bothered to click on the link above, these started when Cash was dumped by his old record label, picked up by American and through a very fortunate set of events, paired with brilliant producer, Rick Rubin.

Rubin’s greatest strength is his ability to get down to the essence of an artist, and cut away all the extraneous stuff that gets in the way of that artist’s work.  In the case of Johnny Cash, he strips everything away except Cash’s vocals and a single acoustic guitar.  The result is that you can focus on Cash doing what he does best, telling a story.

Sometimes that story features a character, like the Vietnam veteran struggling to assimilate years later, on “Drive On” and sometimes it is Cash being introspective about his own failures on “The Beast In Me.”

The Beast In Me” is not written by Cash, but he channels his own troubled past so well into the lyrics it might as well have been.  The song begins with the ominous line:

“The beast in me
Is caged by frail and fragile bars.”

The song drips with Cash’s own regret, and you can’t help but feel that he is mentally going through all the people he hurt in his wild youth.  It is also a tale of caution for any listener who thinks that they are in full control of themselves, to be aware that our darker natures lurk in all of us, and how we’ll never keep them in check by pretending they’re not there.

Only four of the thirteen tracks are written by Cash, but they are generally some of the better ones, including the aforementioned “Drive On.”  He also writes a couple of spirituals, “Let The Train Blow the Whistle” and “Redemption” which are good regardless of what you believe.  The album opens with the fourth original, a song full of dark humour called “Delia’s Gone” about a man who hunts down an unfaithful woman and shoots her.

As is the case with a number of these American Recordings records, some of the song choices don’t work as well as they should.  In particular, I was surprised how little I liked Cash’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On A Wire” which is a song that should be right in his wheelhouse.  It might just be that I’ve heard the Cohen version for so long I don’t like to hear it by anyone else (and yes, that includes Jennifer Warnes).

Also, surprisingly “Why Me Lord” drags a little, and doesn’t have that deep inspirational quality Cash usually has when he talks to God.  It is particularly surprising because “Why Me Lord” is a Kris Kristofferson song, and Cash has mined Kristofferson’s songs successfully many times over.

One song that only grew on me in the last hour or so was “Thirteen” which is a remake of a song originally by the metal band Danzig.  While writing this review, I went and looked up the original on youtube.  It is a great song, and hearing the original – which, yes, is better – it made me appreciate what Cash does with it, drawing out its sad melody and making it his own, as he always does with the songs he borrows.

Overall, this record has a feeling of an older artist making peace with himself, and it is interesting that he’d go one making that peace for another four records – all collaborations with Rubin.

More than any of the other of this series, this first record is the softest, and most understated, and it takes a few listens to get an ear for it.  Once you do, it won’t blow you away.  Instead, it will put you in a thoughtful and relaxed state where the simple beauty of Cash’s voice and guitar will steal its way into your heart.

Best tracks: Delia’s Gone, Let The Train Blow The Whistle, The Beast In Me, Drive On, Like A Soldier.

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