The first Johnny Cash album I heard was At San Quentin.
My father had a copy on vinyl, which I played to death. Lest you think my dad had impeccable musical taste, I should point out that in the 1970s, he had a subscription to the Columbia Record and Tape Club, and would frequently forget to cancel the selection of the month. That meant he got packages in the mail containing records he didn’t order, and didn’t necessarily want. I’ve never managed to find out if the battered copy of At San Quentin was one of those, or an album he purposely bought.
But just like the copies of Led Zeppelin IV and Eat a Peach and Grand Funk Railroad’s Greatest Hits I discovered in my father’s record collection, At San Quentin burned its way into my brain. Who was this crazy man who walked into a prison and sang songs about heinous crimes and glorious redemptions? I loved that deep, powerful voice, and I loved the stories that voice told, particularly “A Boy Named Sue” (which made me feel better about my own unusual name) and “Folsom Prison Blues.”
At that age, I didn’t know anything about Cash, or his life. I just knew these were great songs, sung with authenticity – I thought Johnny himself had shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. Over time, as I learned more about Johnny, my admiration for him only grew. I bought At San Quentin, and At Folsom Prison, and the Love God Murder box set, and loved every note. I had enough respect for him as a person and a performer that I was appalled when he appeared on “The Wanderer,” on U2’s Zooropa album. That just seemed beneath him.
It would be difficult, however, for me to call myself a true Johnny Cash fan. I’ve never felt the need to have every one of his 100 or so albums, and by the time I was 20, I figured I had all the Cash on CD I would ever need. Despite his voice, a world-changing instrument no matter the subject or setting, Cash seemed to me to be an icon of a bygone era, destined to be feted with lavish tributes and spoken of in reverent tones, but rarely listened to. In the mid-‘90s, Cash’s time as an innovative and relevant performer (two adjectives that were very important to me in my 20s) seemed to have passed.
And then came Rick Rubin, and the American Recordings series.
I didn’t hear the first couple of volumes (released in 1994 and 1996) until later, to my shame. In fact, it wasn’t until he covered Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” on the 2002 volume American IV: The Man Comes Around, that I truly delved into these records. But man, once I did, I never looked back. In his final years, Cash found a musical soulmate in Rick Rubin, one who treated him with the dignity he deserved while pushing him to find new territory to explore.
The American series has an easy hook for newbies: Johnny Cash covering the likes of Danzig, Soungarden, Tom Waits, Beck, U2 and Depeche Mode. But that’s only part of the story. The musical selection is wide and varied, dipping back into Cash’s career while unearthing old standards he’d never graced with his voice. It’s remarkable stuff, a late-career renaissance that also gave us a box set of outtakes (Unearthed) and a final album of gospel standards (My Mother’s Hymn Book, recorded by a notably frail and weak Cash shortly before his death in 2003).
Cash could not have found a more reverential and suitable artistic partner for his final years than Rubin, who paired him with some sterling musicians when necessary, and essentially got out of the way whenever possible. The American series most often finds Cash alone with a guitar, offering the most intimate glimpse of That Voice we’ve ever been given. Cash was so thrilled with the results of his collaboration with Rubin that he kept recording with him until he couldn’t anymore. Johnny Cash passed away on September 12, 2003, but before he did, he completed sessions for two final volumes in the American series.
The first, American V: A Hundred Highways, came out in 2006. And now here is the last, the final new Cash album ever, fittingly titled American VI: Ain’t No Grave. And it’s a gorgeous finale, a 32-minute meditation on death and the afterlife, a fitting last act for an American legend. It’s hard for me to believe that this is it, that Johnny’s really and truly gone. But American VI is the sound of him facing down his own mortality with faith and grace, and its place as the capstone to his life and career gives these 10 songs an almost spiritual level of poignancy and power.
These are the songs Cash chose to sing in his final days. The record opens with its title track, written by Claude Ely. “There ain’t no grave can hold my body down,” Cash sings in a voice crippled by age, but still strong and true. The song is one of resurrection, given an air of ghostly menace by the Avett Brothers on banjo and footstomps. Rubin adds organs and bells, giving the whole thing a haunted edge. Cash’s one nod to the modernity of the American series is Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Day,” proof once again that Cash could elevate any song just by singing it. This is an amazing, spectral rendition.
Over and over again, Cash takes on songs that seem to directly comment on his impending death. Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” opens with the line “Don’t look so sad, I know it’s over, but life goes on and this old world will keep on turning.” He might as well be serenading his departed love June Carter when he sings “let’s just be glad we had some time together,” and his voice lends a nostalgic sadness to this simple trifle of a song. Tom Paxton’s “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound” is the most on-the-nose, the story of a man contemplating the afterlife and weighing the good and bad he’s done.
Cash’s own “1 Corinthians 15:55,” his final composition, seems an answer to that question. “O death, where is thy sting, o grave, where is thy victory,” Cash sings, sounding hopeful and full of faith. Still, he beseeches his lord, “Don’t come too soon for collecting my debt.” It’s the one sign here that Cash may not have been ready to go – the rest of this album finds him looking back comfortably, and offering messages of hope.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the final two tracks. Ed McCurdy’s “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” feels like Cash’s last will and testament for the world: “I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war.” In lesser hands, this song is a hippy-dippy peacenik anthem, but when Cash sings it, its vision sounds like the most beautiful thing that could ever be. Cash ends his final album with “Aloha Oe,” the Hawaiian tune recorded by Elvis Presley in 1961. This may seem a strange choice, but Rubin says the decision was Cash’s, and it makes sense once you hear it: the last line on the last Johnny Cash album is “…until we meet again.”
And I’ll admit to tearing up a little at that moment. Not just then, either – this entire album is full of little moments given grand resonance in context. When Cash sings “I Don’t Hurt Anymore,” it’s not just about getting over a breakup, it’s about putting aside fear of death. Bob Nolan’s “Cool Water” is about longing for release. Throughout, Rubin wisely keeps things sparse, Cash’s cracked voice resting on acoustic guitars, pianos and little else. It sounds absolutely beautiful.
Much as I like “Aloha Oe” as the final track, I think there is one song here that embodies this album’s mood of hope and faith: “Satisfied Mind,” originally recorded by Porter Wagoner in 1955, and then by artists as diverse as Bob Dylan and Jeff Buckley. I’m especially moved by the final verse: “When my life has ended, my time has run out, my friends and my loved ones, I’ll leave, there’s no doubt, but one thing’s for certain, when it comes my time, I’ll leave this old world with a satisfied mind…”
I can’t imagine a more perfect sentiment for Johnny Cash to leave us with. I will miss the Man in Black something fierce. Before the American series, I didn’t fully understand just what the world would be losing with Johnny’s death, but this astonishing set of recordings has kindled in me a love of Cash’s music that will stay with me forever. American VI: Ain’t No Grave is a gorgeous, sad and joyous collection, a fitting final goodbye to a man who, even in his last days, fully deserved to be called a legend.
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I’m going to burn through a couple of other new albums quickly now, since there just isn’t time and space to listen to everything and review it as completely as I’d like. The deluge keeps on coming, and I’m trying to keep my head above water, but as 2010 quickly turns into the best year for new music I can remember, it’s getting more difficult.
One of the most talked-about new releases is Plastic Beach, the third album by animated collective Gorillaz. I’m amazed by the off-kilter directions Damon Albarn has taken his career since Blur called it quits, and Gorillaz is one of his most intriguing projects. It’s a collaboration between him and comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, creator of Tank Girl, among others – essentially, Gorillaz is a cartoon band, like Josie and the Pussycats, and Albarn creates the soundtrack to their lives.
He does so with an army of guest stars. Plastic Beach includes a dazzling array of them: Mos Def, soul legend Bobby Womack, Lou Reed, Mark E. Smith of the Fall. Snoop Dogg, and Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals. (Yes, Snoop Dogg and Lou Reed are on the same album. The heavens may commence opening, and the rain of blood can begin.) In that sense, this album is no different from the previous two Gorillaz records.
But this one is different. Albarn produced the thing himself, instead of handing the reins to Danger Mouse or Dan the Automator, and the result is a little straighter, a little less fun. Albarn makes up for that with some of his coolest songs yet, including “Rhinestone Eyes” and the wonderful “Superfast Jellyfish,” but those hoping for another non-stop party might be baffled by some of the man’s choices here. Give it time, though, and Plastic Beach reveals itself as a surprisingly artful affair – just check out “On Melancholy Hill,” or the closer, “Pirate Jet.”
Still, the finest song here is the first single, “Stylo.” It feels like soundtrack music to a car chase (a feeling borne out by its video), and includes both Mos Def in fine form, and Bobby Womack blowing minds with his signature wail. It sounds most like the Gorillaz of old, and for all of this album’s artistic growth, I’m hoping for a bit more of that pure fun disposability next time out.
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Speaking of records I was hoping for more from, there’s Broken Bells. This is a team-up between Danger Mouse and James Mercer of the Shins, a pairing rife with possibilities. Mercer’s been MIA for a few years, ever since firing half of his band, and it’s nice to hear his voice again. Danger Mouse, on the other hand, has been ubiquitous, both as one-half of Gnarls Barkley and as a go-to producer for artists like Beck and the Black Keys, with mixed results. I was hoping a collaboration might reinvigorate both.
Instead, we get this, a middling collection of trifles that sound like Shins b-sides, augmented by sometimes interesting, sometimes flat-out annoying electronics. Most of these tracks don’t rise to the level of the first single, “The High Road,” and very few are memorable, the way the best Shins songs can burrow into your head for weeks. I like “Vaporize” quite a bit, with its dirty organ and horn lines. I enjoy “The Ghost Inside,” with its trippy beat and fine keyboard melody. Everything else is pretty and forgettable – even the multi-part suite “Your Head is On Fire” ends up disappointing.
I don’t want to say Broken Bells is bad. It’s just not as good as it should be, given its pedigree. Further listens have deepened my appreciation of meanders like “Sailing to Nowhere” (fitting title, that) and “Mongrel Heart.” But I was hoping for so much more, and it seems Mercer in particular approached this as a side project, rather than a going concern. The songs just aren’t up to snuff, and I hope he’s been saving his good ones for that fourth Shins record.
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I am a huge fan of Wisconsin songwriter Peter Mulvey, one of the music world’s best-kept secrets. His first label, Eastern Front, sent me free copies of his first five releases when I worked at Face Magazine. Most of the free stuff we got ended up in the trash pile after one spin, but Mulvey’s work stuck with me. I was there at Raoul’s Roadside Attraction in Portland the night Mulvey wrote and premiered “The Trouble With Poets,” one of his sharpest signature tunes. I’ve been into the man’s work for 15 years.
But lately it’s been more difficult, as he’s turned into more of a traditional folkie. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Kitchen Radio and The Knuckleball Suite, except they rely on old-time American folk music as their touchstones. Where early Mulvey albums were all over the map, stylistically and lyrically, his last couple of records have focused on aping classic music forms rather than reinventing them. The results have been sweet and charming, but I’ve missed the old fire.
Well, I’m dancing in the streets these days, because Mulvey’s 10th album, Letters From a Flying Machine, is a dazzling return to form. I’m not sure what it is that sets this one above its predecessors, but I love it intensely in a way I haven’t since The Trouble With Poets. For one thing, the old diversity is back, as Mulvey shifts from beautiful acoustic pieces (“Windshield”) to jazzy shuffles (“Some People”) to invigorating percussive workouts (“Dynamite Bill”), never spending too long in one place.
For another, though, Mulvey has created something of a concept album this time out. He’s interspersed his new songs with spoken word pieces (a staple on his early records), in the form of letters written on an airplane to member s of his family. They are delightful little stories, full of insight and grace, and in one instance (“Vlad the Astrophysicist”), they caused me to look at life, the universe and everything in a completely new way. The best music and poetry does this, and Mulvey has always made it look easy.
The lyrics on this album are brilliant as usual. The opening verse of “Kids in the Square” is as perfect a summation of the modern world I’ve heard in some time: “If you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’re looking for, then you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’ll find, you don’t have to go very far these days to find yourself a made-up mind…” Mulvey’s one old-time pastiche this time out is “Some People,” but it’s so funny and so incisive that I can’t help singing along. “Some people go to the tavern, some people go to the church, some senators go into airport johns and they get their reputations besmirched, some people go from the altar to leave someone in the lurch, I just go mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm…”
Throughout, whether he’s spinning a beautiful acoustic lament or a dynamic pop tune, Mulvey sounds reinvigorated here. His songs are sharper than they’ve been in years, his voice versatile and commanding as ever, and by the end of the album, when he’s balancing a spoken-word piece about our existential loneliness (“Vlad”) against a lovely song about finding faith in another (“On a Wing and a Prayer”), you’ll feel like he’s worked a particularly fine bit of magic. The truth is, he’s just gotten better at his craft, and on Letters From a Flying Machine, he’s taken his recent work to a new level. For the first time in a while, I’m in love with a Peter Mulvey album, and longing for the next one.
Buy it here.
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And finally, the next installment in my Top 20 of the 2000s. With this one, we’re halfway through the list. Rejoice!
#11. Duncan Sheik, Phantom Moon (2001).
Here’s a story that illustrates just how much Duncan Sheik’s career has changed since this album came out. Late last year, I was visiting friends on the east coast. One of them has a 17-year-old daughter who is hoping to make musical theater her career. The name “Duncan Sheik” elicited squeals of delight from this girl, who only knows him from his Tony award-winning musical Spring Awakening. She’s never heard “Barely Breathing,” or “She Runs Away.” For an entire generation of theater kids, Sheik is a respected composer, and has never been a pop star.
That, to me, is amazing. But then, I have heard “Barely Breathing” and “She Runs Away,” Sheik’s two big hits from 1996. Over and over again, I’ve heard them. They’re certainly not terrible songs, but they were overplayed to death in the late ‘90s, and they were definitely the work of a young, naïve songwriter. Believe me when I say that, as surprised as that young generation of theater kids is that Sheik ever had hits on pop radio, my generation is equally surprised that the writer of “Barely Breathing” now has a Tony.
But if you’re looking for the missing link, the musical work that launched Sheik on his path toward respectability, look no further than Phantom Moon. It’s his first collaboration with Spring Awakening lyricist Steven Sater, and his first album made solely as a work of art instead of as a commercial venture. It’s also strikingly, incredibly beautiful.
I said in 2001 that Phantom Moon is the kind of album that lowers the temperature of any room it’s played in, and I stand by that statement. Sheik is a devoted Nick Drake disciple (just look at this album’s title), and for this record, he wore that influence on his sleeve. Phantom Moon is entirely performed on acoustic instruments, with one notable exception, and the sparse and chilling arrangements do his even tenor a world of good. The record is flush with lovely strings and pianos, and the songs are just flat-out the most gorgeous things Sheik has ever written.
The album is designed like a wave, building and cresting before breaking and receding. It begins with just piano and voice, and ends that way as well, adding instruments through the first half and taking them away through the second. While some of these songs are merely achingly pretty (“The Winds That Blow,” “Sad Stephen’s Song”), some are more dramatic in scope (“Mouth on Fire,” “Lo and Behold”). Throughout, Sheik exhibits a control over his voice and his sound like never before (and, frankly, since). This album is the sound of a true songwriter finding himself.
I mentioned there was one notable exception to the acoustic rule, and it’s smack dab in the middle of the record. “Far Away,” perhaps the prettiest tune here, features graceful electric guitar by Bill Frisell, and it signifies the climax point. From then on, the sound gets softer, the songs more ghostly, until Sheik ends things as he began them, with “The Wilderness.” When it’s over, you’ll feel like you’ve been taken somewhere special, and that’s a feeling only the very best records can give you.
Sheik has made three albums since Phantom Moon, and none have quite captured the magic on display here. I would go so far as to say that Phantom Moon is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of album, and I doubt Sheik will ever equal it. But that’s okay, since very few artists I know have equaled it either. There’s just this certain indefinable quality about it, one that has stayed with me for 10 years, and will likely follow me the rest of my life. It’s that good.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.