Rated | Alphabetical
| Highest Rated 2006
Johnny Cash: American IV: The Man Comes Around
American/Lost Highway, 2002
Artists: Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to the Songs of Johnny Cash
Lucky Day/Sony, 2002
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
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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