Monthly Archives: May 2014

Sound ‘Round: Johnny Cash

The first and the latest

Johnny Cash – With His Hot and Blue Guitar (Sun, 1957)

johnny cash - his hot and blue guitarHis first LP is seldom mentioned in regards to his cannon because its best singles have been repackaged ad nauseam. The victim of an era when albums were a smattering of previously released hits culled for the lucrative holiday sales rush, it’s an intended toss-off which stumbled into posterity thanks to J.R.’s Hall of Fame career. Removed from the grandiose lore, however, the music becomes an exhibit of quintessential ‘50s Cash: a God-like voice heavy on charisma and Arkansas drawl contrasted by plaintive train track guitars and primitive Tex-Mex flair. It’s the blueprint for everything he’d ever be and a foundation for the house Nashville built. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: I Walk The Line” / “Folsom Prison Blues” / “Cry! Cry! Cry!

Johnny Cash – Out Among the Stars (Legacy)

Out Among The Stars cover art.  (PRNewsFoto/Legacy Recordings)The greatest quality of Cash’s infamous baritone is its versatility. The Man in Black can be anything to anyone: A hell raiser who kills for kicks, a preacher who loves Jesus second only to his mama, a comedian who mocks his own “Aw, shucks” demeanor or a grim reaper accepting his date with eternity. This lost album, assembled from tapes recorded and shelved three decades ago, is a diluted amalgam of such traits and captures an icon in transition. With Nashville having ditched him for a decade of over produced schmaltz and Rick Rubin still cutting his teeth behind the glass, Cash clandestinely settled into middle age. Subsequently, these dozen songs move with an ease rarely heard in any of his late period releases. Aside from the title number’s dark tale of a liquor store bandit and the finale which meets his God quota, a jovial sense of normalcy saturates Cash’s disposition – never more so on the pair of duets he shares with June Carter. Even in domesticity, he walked the line. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time” / “Out Among the Stars” / “I’m Movin’ On

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Sound ‘Round: Wussy / Withered Hand

Love, redemption, love and redemption

Wussy – Attica! (Shake-It)

wussy - atticaLisa Walker begins her band’s fifth album in a corn maze listening to The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” languished in the same teenage wasteland as Pete Townshend and Keith Moon. The loop-laden track, part homage and part childlike nostalgia, recalls the careless innocence of youth, and marks a distinct change for the Cincinnati quintet – who have kicked-off each of their previous efforts with a pulverizing breakup anthem. Heartache has been the reoccurring theme since their 2005 debut. Walker and co-vocalist Chuck Cleaver were a pair for the band’s first five years, and their respectful, but powerful, tension propelled them through a string of highly listenable records heavy on Midwestern drone and neo country-rock twang. While the lyrics still concern relationships, the dynamic has shifted. Aside from a pair of Cleaver submissions about dissolved accords, the track list is permeated with love songs aggressive, obsessive and tender. Just as emotional reconciliation came naturally over time, so does the band’s growth in sound. Musically, they’ve never been more forceful or diverse – psychedelic fuzz and pedal steel blends seamlessly with mandolins and the whirl of theremin. Everything coalesces, including Walker and Cleaver – whose duet on the finale deals with this band’s prevailing legacy: unity. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: Teenage Wasteland/ To the Lightning” / “Beautiful

Withered Hand – New Gods (Slumberland)

withered hand - new godsThe closing verse on the morally conflicted “Love Over Desire” is a microcosm of Scottish singer-songwriter Dan Wilson’s young discography. Fresh off an international flight en route to his rock n’ roll day job, he leaves his fleshlight at home and compounds the sexual distance between himself and his homebound wife. “Another flower on the coffin of monogamy,” he sings in his creaky timbre. Wilson’s music, a proportional mixture of forthright folk and punk’s dark humor, pits uncompromising personal conviction against the temptation of cardinal sin. His lyrics mesh religious imagery with playfully crass quips about his libido, detailing his emotional psyche with brutal honesty. He’s deep, for sure, but his buoyant melodicism and major-key resiliency adds a lighthearted edge to his otherwise heavy handed ways. He’s extra heavy on the love songs – all earnest, delicate and indicative of a blossoming wordsmith who chooses love over desire every time. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: Fall Apart” / “Between Love and Ruin” / “Not Alone”

Sound ‘Round: Beck / Drive-By Truckers

Returns to form
Beck – Morning Phase (Capitol)
beck - morning phaseThis gestated return is comparable to 2002’s Sea Change but not the outright sequel some critics have proclaimed. Having long lost the will to funk, he’s once again refashioned himself as a sad-eyed wanderer: CEO of the meditative 40-something club. It’s easy to peg his twelfth release as another entry in a long line of folk-rock records heavy on false sincerity. As SPIN’s Jason Gubbles says in his review, however, the entirety of Beck’s career has more to do with the gold-plated allure of his California roots than his youthful antics during the ‘90s indicate otherwise. Stripped of its deadpan humor and underground blues chic, his musical foundation of dust-covered guitars and a slacker’s sensibility has more in common with Don Henley than Tom DeLonge. His first album since nearing middle age is absent his patent playfulness, but he has no use for it. Naked country-rock arrangements alone ease his universal concerns: Am I OK? Am I happy? To bolster such material which could easily sour, desert-dry strings uplift his somber baritone, and light-footed lap steel adds to his reinvigorated sense of musical purpose. There may not be much joy in his step, but this noteworthy rebound is far from joyless. GRADE: A-
Key Tracks: Blackbird Chain” / “Waking Light” / “Morning
 

Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans (ATO)

drive-by truckers - english oceansThe comeback album of the year is spurred in large part by Mike Cooley’s tremendous growth as a songwriter. Once perpetual sideman to Patterson Hood’s dioramas of Southern woe, Cooley’s work gets top billing: including the fantastic “Shit Shots Count,” an opening barrage of satire and Bible Belt guitars punctuated by a brass section befitting of the Muscle Shoals house band. The remainder of Cooley’s contributions deals with empty fatherhood in the wake of a daughter’s marriage, Lee Atwater’s crooked politics, phony masculinity and pornography-initiated romance – each song as clever and dead-on as the last. But where Cooley relies on blunt lyrics and politically incorrect humor, Hood’s gentler prose lends itself to the kind of neo-gothic romanticism the South deserves. Topics include an independent woman who suffers a housewife’s purgatory, a treatise against teabagging right wingers and ambitious youth rendered apathetic by shithole towns. The antithesis of Cooley’s bratty drawl, however, comes on the poetic finale which name checks the Grand Canyon. “If the recently departed make the sunsets to say farewell to the ones they leave behind / There were Technicolor hues to see our sadness through as the sun over Athens said goodbye.” Faulkner could never match such beautiful brevity. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: Shit Shots Count” / “Primer Coat” / “Part of Him