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Cashing In

  Johnny Cash: American IV: The Man Comes Around

 

American/Lost Highway, 2002

Rating: 2.5

    Various Artists: Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to the Songs of Johnny Cash

 

Lucky Day/Sony, 2002

Rating: 3.4

 

 

Posted: November 16, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

A Johnny Cash tribute album is a fine idea, even if at first blush it seems a bit beside the point. After all, it's Cash's bedrock voice, and the sheer presence it exudes, that make his records worthwhile, more than the songs he chooses to serve as its vessel. Cash's recent collaborations with producer Rick Rubin are proof of this; gimmicky as it is to hear Cash's death-dealing baritone inhabit songs like Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage," he does invest such interpretations with the voice of elemental experience more often than not.

Still, Kindred Spirits does prove how durable a songwriter Cash can be, even if some of the versions here don't exactly do the originals a kindness. Travis Tritt's MOR/ modern country-ballad reworking of "I Walk the Line" is of questionable merit, although Tritt's soulful intoning of the lyrics is an interesting approach. Sheryl Crow's presence undermines an otherwise effective rendition of "Flesh and Blood" -- does anyone really think she's in the same talent class as Emmylou Harris or Mary Chapin Carpenter? But such missteps are leavened by solid performances from Dwight Yoakam, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Keb' Mo' and especially Charlie Robison, whose "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" is a highlight. And producer Marty Stuart comports himself well, both as a performer and as shepherd of what could have been a tiresome exercise in off-kilter kitsch.

Unfortunately, off-kilter kitsch is exactly what the aforementioned "American" series, Cash's ongoing collaborations with famed rock/hip-hop producer Rubin (The Beastie Boys, the Cult, the Red Hot Chili Peppers), has devolved into. The first of these endeavors, 1994's American Recordings and 1996's Unchained, achieved their primary goal of introducing Cash to younger audiences, and they hold up well as good, if uneven, records. That's largely because Rubin's reverence for his subject kept things from sliding into campy cover-version hell, and he was wise enough to sprinkle enough original Cash material into the mix to leaven the novelty factor.

But by 2000's American III: Solitary Man, the strain of pulling together enough suitable material was beginning to show. A game crack at U2's "One" proved embarrassing, and even sturdier interpretations of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down," Neil Diamond's title track and Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat" (a rumbling improvement on the chaotic original) showed wear and tear; the only real revelation was a haunting turn at Will Oldham's "I See A Darkness." Solitary Man sandbagged the collective high marks of the "American" series as a whole, and many fans no doubt assumed, or hoped, the series would end there.

No such luck, and the results are a case study in the law of diminishing returns. The Man Comes Around has its moments, but ultimately it does Cash's legacy no favors. It's not a godawful bad record, but it underlines once and for all that the "American" concept has run its course. Cash's title track, a darkly portentous number steeped in themes of reckoning, redemption and the Book of Revelations, is a solid opener, and a low-key stab at Trent Reznor's "Hurt" fares better than one would fear, replacing Reznor's melodramatic histrionics with the knife-edged gravity of a life of betrayal and regret. "Give My Love to Rose," another Cash original, also proves sturdy. But then The Man falters, beginning with a solemn, chamber-music interpretation of the Simon & Garfunkel chestnut "Bridge Over Troubled Waters," neither helped nor diminished by the vocal accompaniment of angry waif Fiona Apple. Covers of the Eagles croaker "Desperado," Sting's "I Hung My Head" (effective, but it highlights the song's weaknesses) and the Beatles' "In My Life" (wherein Cash's somber intoning suits the letter of the lyrics, if not the spirit of their intent) prove dissatisfying. But it's an oddly wrong-headed rendition of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" where the wheels fly off the rail for good. Lyrically, the song is a perfect fit for Cash's ongoing biblical themes, but even moreso than Solitary Man's "One," the novelty factor proves too distracting. And the decision to play the material straight, without any attempts at altering the arrangement into something more appropriate to Cash's voice, is all too jarring.

Ultimately, we're forced to conclude that Cash's renditions of others' songs are a mixed bag, and a mixed blessing. Yes, his voice remains as powerful as ever, and when paired with the increasingly rare right material, the results are solid. But more and more, the "American" series feels forced, contrived, at a loss for fresh ideas that work. It's ironic when a Johnny Cash album proves less satisfying than a collection of Cash covers, but the message is clear: it's Cash's own songs, as the originals on The Man Comes Around and the interpretations on Kindred Spirits make clear, that deserve more focus -- from the Man in Black himself and others.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
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 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
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 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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