Archive for March, 2013

Christmas SpiritI write this review with Easter on the horizon. While other Johnny Cash albums might be more appropriate right now (The Gospel Road, The Holy Land), as I work my way through his Columbia catalogue in chronological order, the next one in line is his first Christmas album, The Christmas Spirit.

My taste in Christmas albums is wide and varied. In the top 5, I’d place Elvis’ first Christmas album, Low’s wonderful Christmas, Boney M’s disco-reggae classic, Bruce Cockburn’s late 90’s acoustic wonder, and for an older chestnut, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. While I think there was potential for Cash to make a unique, classic Christmas album, akin to his distinct take on gospel music in Hymns, he never quite got there. The Christmas Spirit, though, is his best effort of the four holiday albums he released over his lifetime.

The opening title track sets the tone. A narrative piece, set to O Little Town of Bethlehem, it provides a modern travelogue in which Johnny dreams of travelling to London, Bavaria, Bethlehem, and Paris. After buying a Bible in a souvenir shop in Bethlehem, he opens it in Paris, finally understanding the true meaning of Christmas as he reads:

“For I read ‘fear not for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy Which shall be to all people For unto you he was born this day in the City of David a Saviour Which is Christ the Lord’”

Johnny was still living wild at this stage, but in this soft story, you can feel the sincerity of his yearning for hope and peace. This is the Johnny we’d see increasingly through the 70s, turning to the Bible time and time again, finding God in the words of Scripture.

The album is filled with such narratives. Here Was a Man is a classic Johnny loved to recite about the inspiration he found in Christ. Christmas as I Knew It reflects on the generosity between the sharecroppers in Johnny’s home of Dyess, Arkansas. Interestingly, it was written by June Carter and Opry favourite Jan Howard. Closing track, Ballad of the Harpweaver, is one of Johnny’s favourite poems, a haunting, magical tale of a boy and his mother. The dulcimer-like accompaniment gives it a real Appalachian flavor and reflects the growing influence the Carters had on Cash. Increasingly, Cash would sing coal-mining tales from the Carters’ Virginia amidst tales of the agricultural world he grew up in to the west. Certainly this version triumphs over the earlier take he recorded in 1959.

Elsewhere, the album features a mix of new and old Christmas tunes. There are acoustic renditions of old English hymns – I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day and The Friendly Beasts (also recorded in that era by Burl Ives and Harry Belafonte), here arranged as The Gifts They Gave – as well as the perennial favourite Silent Night. He takes his turn at Elvis’ Blue Christmas which, while featuring a gorgeous bluesy drawl from Cash, can’t touch Presley’s raucous rendition. There’s also his 1959 single The Little Drummer Boy, which, with its raw, Sun-era sound, sticks out a bit from the gentler sound of the rest of this album.

The back end of the album is then filled out with three originals. Ringing the Bells for Jim, again written by June Carter and Jan Howard, is an upbeat waltz about a boy who rings the church bells at midnight on Christmas to call the priest to pray for his dying brother. We are the Shepherds, penned by Cash and set to the tune of The Streets of Laredo, looks at Christmas through the simple eyes of the shepherds. Who Kept the Sheep marks the first songwriting collaboration between Johnny and June. June plays the autoharp, and Cash muses on the fate of the sheep left behind in their fields when the shepherds went to see Christ.

All in all, The Spirit of Christmas is a truly unique Christmas album. Save for Blue Christmas and the Little Drummer Boy, it is largely pastoral. Where Elvis was having fun at Christmas, you can imagine Johnny sitting quietly by the fire enjoying the simple pleasures of a rural Christmas. The tales of Christmas are humble, and the bulk of the album lilts along in waltz time, a departure from his usual 1-2-3-4 boom chicka boom sound.

The Christmas Spirit doesn’t quite stand up as a classic, but it is an effective, quiet Christmas album, best listened to at night by the fire.

4/5

Invisible WayI’m interrupting my walk through Johnny Cash’s Columbia Records catalogue, to pay tribute to a long-time favourite of mine, Low.  On Tuesday, March 19th, Low release The Invisible Way, their 10th full-length album, marking 10 albums in 20 years. Not bad for the survivors of an obscure genre (slowcore) from an obscure place (Duluth).

I came to Low in the mid-90’s when I was part of an e-mail list (remember those?) for fans of the Cure. I was told if you love the stark minimalism of Seventeen Seconds (check!) and Faith (check!), then Low were the band for you. I stumbled across a vinyl copy of their new release, The Curtain Hits the Cast, and picked it up. Unbeknownst to me, this was quite the rarity, featuring two exclusive tracks. Shortly thereafter, a local record shop had the Over the Ocean single, featuring an incredible hypnotic version of Be There (percussion provided by banging on a clothes dryer). I caught them as they passed through Ottawa, for what was the concert of a lifetime: two stellar opening acts (The Wooden Stars, and the sublime Ida), a tiny basement bar, and a set so quiet that my friend fell asleep four feet from the stage (and singer/guitarist Alan Sparhawk still apologized for being too loud).

What attracted me to Low was their sheer intensity. Each of their first three albums – I Could Live in Hope, Long Division and Curtain – were singular in vision. Slow as anything I had heard, compelling, quiet, sometimes terrifying, with shining moments of absolute beauty. In fact, many of the things I love about Johnny Cash – minimalism, ringing guitars, and haunting vocals – applied equally to Low. They simply came from different genres in different eras.

Over the years, though, like Cash, Low have sought to broaden their sonic palette. The Songs for a Dead Pilot EP stripped away the reverb, offering a new lo-fi approach at the hands of Steve Albini. He went on to produce the gorgeous chamber pop of Secret Name, further expanded upon and slightly rocked out on Things We Lost in the Fire. 2002’s Trust seemed to round out the era, drawing on elements of all their previous albums. Moving to Sub Pop, they swapped delay pedals for distortion on 2005’s The Great Destroyer. The follow-up, Drums and Guns, was entirely different once again, offering a deconstructionist, electronic approach to a new set of songs. C’Mon was in some ways a return to form, again allowing for gorgeous pop, blissed out distorted jams, and some slower, spacier numbers as well.

For a fan grounded in those earlier releases, each of which offered a stark commitment to a singular sound, their later releases have been mixed affairs for me. On the one hand, I have enjoyed many of their experiments, and find all of the elements I first loved about them – the beauty, the snarl, and the serenity – remain. On the other hand, very few of their albums have hung together from beginning to end. Plus there’s always a real stinker of a track somewhere on there (Step anyone?).

The release of The Invisible Way, then leaves me in both anticipation and fear. The production of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy is promising (another one of my fave’s, his work with Mavis Staples is a revelation). Advance promotion promised more contributions from drummer/vocalist/wife Mimi (great!) and lots of acoustic guitar and piano (hmmm… but I love Alan’s electric so much).

So what about The Invisible Way? Once again, it offers the “Low sound” from a different vantage. This time, it is driven by softly strummed acoustic and minimally chorded piano. In many ways, this is Low unplugged. It also reflects the warm, clear production style Tweedy has been developing. Where his own 6-man band’s arrangements are dense, he seems to help other artists strip away the layers to get to the essence of their songs. This is a natural fit for Low.

I’m happy to say that Mimi really takes charge on this album. In recent years, she’s offered only 2-3 songs per album. Here she’s on almost half of them. I’ve always loved the roundness of her tone, which blends well with Alan’s frailer sound. Funny thing is, on this album, she’s harmonizing with herself, often three times over. Holy Ghost is probably the peak here – beautiful, stately and lush. The lyrics – some holy ghost keeps me hanging on/i feel the hands/but don’t see anyone – could equally be religious or romantic, expressing her Mormonism in a personal yet universal way.  Four Score is another soft tune, and she closes the album with the reflective To Our Knees. Both of these are pretty, and continue in a spiritual vein, but I find them unmemorable. Often Mimi’s songs stick in your head for days – take the dripping, repetitive chorus of Over the Ocean, or her heartbreaking When You Walked Out on Me – but these ones just float pleasantly through your ears and then move on. As if predicting the risk of boredom, she surprisingly offers two upbeat numbers: the driving So Blue, and the poppy Just Make It Stop. So Blue is the better of the two, the intro builds up with piano-driven octaves walking up a major scale as Alan’s guitar grumbles underneath, making way for Mimi’s angelic voice to burst through the ether. Stop, however, feels really clumsy to me. The melody is catchy (although the chord progression reminds me of Men Without Hats’ I Got the Message), but the pacing feels wrong.

Alan, on the other hand is in an experimental mood. Plastic Cup is acerbic and amusing, a meditation on a future anthropologists confused reflections on present-day drug testing.  The lyrics reflect some of the more bitter moments on The Great Destroyer; if only the brief two-chord instrumental passage developed into a longer jam. Waiting is a piano ballad they’ve been playing live that never really goes anywhere for me.  Lyrically, it reminds of the depression Alan began sharing publicly following Destroyer, and is deeply moving, as if it’s one sufferer reaching out to another: “I can see beyond the smile/cheat and lie/I’m not blind/suicide, I’ll still be here tomorrow.”  Yet musically it tries to reach the heights of past epic numbers like Will the Night, but just doesn’t get there. Clarence White hints at a soul/funk vibe, Mother is an acoustic waltz, and On My Own starts out as a strange take on country, until morphing into a Neil Young-worthy howling rave out… all with the repeated mantra of “happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday.”

The songs are all nice in their own right, but not much more than that. Just… nice. For everything I like about this album, I can remember another album where they’ve done it better. The guitar jams are longer and better on Destroyer’s When I Go Deaf or C’Mon’s Everything But Heart. The lush harmonies are sweeter on Secret Name’s Two Step. The pop culture references (the Byrds and Charlton Heston) are more natural on Drums & Gun’s Hatchet. The minimalism is more majestic on Long Division’s Below & Above. The regret is sadder on Pilot’s Hey Chicago.

Thankfully, there’s one perfect song: Amethyst. This song takes their new acoustic approach and drags it through a descending five-chord progression that swirls and swirls into magical oblivion. Together, Alan and Mimi lament, their voices on the verge of disintegration, “the color bleeds, fades to white, what used to be a violent mind.” A perfect Low moment. If only there were more of them this time round…

3.5/5… maybe 4 if I’m feeling generous…

Ring of FireIf you had bought all of Johnny Cash’s Columbia LPs up until 1963, you would still be missing some 26 songs, including 9 single-only a-sides, a handful of b-sides, and four songs from The Rebel – Johnny Yuma EP. Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash is Columbia’s first attempt to draw some of these together.Thus, apart from one track, it is a “best-of singles” collection, highlighting non-album releases.

The results are mixed. Here’s what you get:

  • Five a-sides: Ring Of Fire, Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord?), The Rebel – Johnny Yuma, Bonanza!, The Big Battle
  • Six b-sides: I’d Still Be There (Ring of Fire), What Do I Care (All Over Again), Forty Shades Of Green (The Rebel – Johnny Yuma single), Remember The Alamo (The Rebel – Johnny Yuma EP), Tennessee Flat Top Box (Tall Man), (There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me) (with the Carter Family) (Were You There)
  • One single released on The Fabulous Johnny Cash: I Still Miss Someone

Perhaps what’s more interesting is what wasn’t included:

  • Five a-sides: All Over Again, The Little Drummer Boy, I Got Stripes, Girl in Saskatoon, Tall Man
  • Ten b-sides: You Dreamer You (Frankie’s Man, Johnny), I’ll Remember You (The Little Drummer Boy), Lorena (The Rebel – Johnny Yuma EP), The Ballad of Boot Hill (The Rebel – Johnny Yuma EP), Smiling Bill McCall (Seasons of My Heart), Second Honeymoon (Going to Memphis), Locomotive Man (Girl in Saskatoon), A Little at a Time (In the Jailhouse Now), Pick a Bale O’ Cotton (Bonanza!), Send a Picture of Mother (Busted)

To evaluate this album fairly, it should be judged against its title, “The Best of”. Today we are blessed with more completist offerings including the Legacy reissues, as well as the excellent Singles, Plus 2-disc collection in the Complete Columbia Collection. The question is to what degree are these “The Best of Johnny Cash” from his Columbia releases, 1958-1963?

Certainly, the album opens well with his absolute smash Ring of Fire. I Still Miss Someone is a strange inclusion as it was already available on an album, although in my opinion it is Cash’s best song ever, epic in its minimalism. Cash had a great love for gospel, and so the inclusion of Were You There/Peace in the Valley is appropriate; it’s also the first appearance of the Carter family in his recordings, so is important in that regard. The Rebel – Johnny Yuma was a big hit for Cash, and a tie-in to a popular TV show; he always closed his set with this one back then. Likewise, including his rendition of the theme to the Bonanza! TV show would have helped sell albums. Is that one his best? Not necessarily, but it’s fun and the opening guitar riff is just blistering.

Where this album lacks is in its historical tales. Johnny loved singing about the history of the South, so it’s important for that aspect of his career to be covered, here. Included here are The Big Battle, a grandly-produced civil war tale, and Remember the Alamo, a military snare drum-led tale of that famous defeat. I would have dropped Alamo, and swapped in Lorena, a more personal tale. I just can’t stand the backing choir on Alamo. Similarly, Forty Shades of Green – a tale of Ireland – sticks out like a sore thumb with its syrupy arrangement. Much better b-sides could have been chosen, particularly the raucous Locomotive Man (note the album doesn’t have any train songs), or the classic heartbreaker, A Little At a Time. Johnny also sang frequently about life in the cottonfields, and the bouncy Pick a Bale O’ Cotton would have filled that bill.

It’s interesting, too how they left out certain a-sides. Although its b-side was included, All Over Again wasn’t. It’s a good boom-chicka-boom song, although inferior to many others from the era, including its b-side. Likewise, Girl in Saskatoon and Tall Man were both failed experiments with bigger production approaches, the former drowned in echo, the latter embarrassing for its sped-up chipmunk-style backing vocals. Tennessee Flat-Top Box should have been the a-side to Tall Man, and is rightfully included here. The Little Drummer Boy would be released later that year on The Christmas Spirit. The tragedy, then, is I Got Stripes which is, quite simply, one of Johnny’s greatest singles. How it was left off, I’ll never know. The remaining b-sides vary in quality, but none are deserving of a “best of”; Boot Hill, for one, would be included on 1965’s Ballads of the True West.

So how does this album fare, then? Again, I’d say it’s a hodge podge. Johnny’s sound varied so much in this era (rockabilly, pop, grander historical tales, country, folk), it’s hard to make a consistent-sounding album. Many of the songs are great, so I’d give it a 4/5.

If I had programmed the album, though, I would have dropped I Still Miss Someone, The Big Battle, Forty Shades of Green, and Remember the Alamo, and subbed in I Got Stripes, Lorena, Locomotive Man, A Little at a Time, and Pick a Bale o’ Cotton. That brings us to 13 tracks, so one would have to go, and I’m not sure which one… which shows just how impossible it is to create a “Best of”.

Blood Sweat and TearsTo be short and to the point, I Love This Album. In fact, I would peg this as the great unsung record of Johnny Cash’s career.

If you’ve been reading my reviews thus far, you’ll know that by 1963 Cash had released 7 albums, 1 EP, and a handful of singles since moving from Sun to Columbia. His Sun sound is instantly recognizable. After recording one song for Sam Phillips with a steel guitar (Wide Open Road) , they quickly threw poor Red and his steel out the door, and mastered the sparse, boom-chicka-boom sound: I-V-I bass patterns mimicked by a muted tick-tock electric guitar, brief, chiming arpeggio-style leads, and Johnny driving it all along by raking across his own muted acoustic guitar to give train-like percussion. Occasionally piano was added, as were 50’s style background vocals. Later compilations marred these recordings with overdubbed strings, too, but the core sound was minimal, innovative, and most importantly, distinctly Johnny Cash.

Moving to Columbia had both positive and negative effects. Certainly, Cash was allowed new creative freedom. He quickly explored his love of gospel music, as well as a number of concept records on various aspects of life in the rural south of his youth. A national label offering artistic freedom, however, also expected big sales. Not surprisingly, then, Cash’s Columbia records often work to conform him to contemporary trends, all in an effort to score that big hit. He experimented with folk, more acoustic country styles, and, most horrendously, a typical choir-and-vibraphone Gospel album (Hymns from the Heart). The problem with Cash is, while he has always maintained a clear artistic vision for the content of his music, he seems to resign the delivery of his music to the whims of his producers. Sam Phillips’ approach matched the sonics to Cash’s song choices. The same could be said years later for Rick Rubin. For Don Law and Frank Jones, his go-to producers at Columbia, often struggled to find an appropriate sound for Cash in those monstrous big-label studios.

On his previous release, The Sound of Johnny Cash, they seemed to be acknowledging they had lost their way with big slick arrangements. Ironically, that album didn’t quite capture what it set out to do, although it was a step in the right direction. Instead, I would argue that it is here, on Blood, Sweat and Tears, that they nail the “new” Johnny Cash Sound.

Several factors led to this arrival. First, it’s the first album where WS Holland plays drums throughout (he’d previously appeared on one track on Hymns from the Heart). His galloping snare expanded the Tennessee Two to the Tennessee Three, giving Cash a bigger sound, without sacrificing minimalism. The Two were fine for county fairs, but needed something more to fit in the big arenas they were moving towards.

Second, it marks the addition of the Carter Family as his backing singers. Although they had toured together, Cash’s backing vocals on records were usually by anonymous session singers. Cash’s band, however, was anything but anonymous. Luther and Marshall, while far from virtuosos, had a guitar-bass sound unlike any other in country. Cash obviously had a voice unlike any other. The Carter’s now gave them a backing unlike any other. Mother Maybelle’s autoharp also added an old-world charm that reflected the earthiness of Cash’s lyrics.

Third, it marks the introduction of Bob Johnson on guitar and banjo. They had previously attempted more complex acoustic guitar parts with tour mate Johnny Western, but, again, they needed an idiosyncratic voice that could become part of the family. Bob fit the bill. His fills float beautifully above the Tennessee Three’s musical centre. It would only take the addition of the Statler Brothers a couple of years later to cement Cash’s musical entourage.

What, then, about the music? On Blood, Sweat and Tears, we have nine magical songs reflecting on the misery of manual labour. The album opens with the epic The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer. Over nine minutes, Cash tales the tale of the West Virginian who out-paced a steam-powered hammer driving railway spikes. He saved his friends’ jobs at the expense of his own life. The song builds on the sonic model first heard in Rock Island Line, adding just the right amount of flourishes through Holland’s drums, Johnson’s banjo, and the sound of a driving spike.

From then on, poverty, toil and death pervade. Tell Him I’m Gone is a bluesy Cash original. Luther slows down the Big River riff to give a slow-burning, twangy minor-third foundation upon which Johnson can solo. It’s another tale of escaping the chain gang despite the threat of the captain’s ninety-nine caliber gun. Another Man Done Gone takes the vocal interplay of the previous year’s gospel single “Were You There…” to new heights. Cash and Anita Carter have an a cappella duel, telling the tragic tale of the hanging of a sharecropper.

Busted (the album’s single) is a moaner of monumental proportions. The narrator’s cotton crop doesn’t come in, cows run dry, hens won’t lay, and his brother can’t spare a dime because his family’s sick. Written in ’62 by Country Music Hall of Famer Harlan Howard, and driven to #4 in ’63 by Ray Charles, Cash’s rendering is made all the more mournful by that distinct autoharp.

The banjo in Casey Jones gives the album a more upbeat turn. This rail song is mixed perfectly, the background vocals adding energy. The misery quickly returns, though. Merle Travis’ Nine Pound Hammer is a loping acoustic tune in which Johnny’s bellowing baritone drawls about the misery of driving a hammer. Chain Gang is carefree and catchy, despite its desperate chorus:

“I dig that ditch, I chop that corn, I curse the day that I was born, I believe it’s better for a man to hang, than to work like a dog on a chain gang”

Jimmie Rodgers’ Waiting for a Train adds a breath of fresh air with some barroom piano, and on the closing Roughneck, Cash laments, “I’ll never amount to nothing.”

Usually, when singing of hardship, Cash offers comfort through faith. In Blood, Sweat and Tears he sings of nothing but the sheer misery of forced manual labour, be it through slavery, poverty or imprisonment. What makes this album so memorable, though, is the sound, the sound, the sound. The Boom-Chicka-Boom sound is back in all its glory, yet perfectly complemented through backing vocals, acoustic lead guitar, banjo, and autoharp. There are a lot of found sounds on this one, too – driving spikes, train noises and the like permeate. Not surprisingly, Another Man… comes from found sound guru Alan Lomax.

No classic singles on this one, and yet a perfect 5/5!

Other Songs from the Era:

  • Send a Picture of Mother – The b-side of Busted, this is another autoharp accompanied tune. Pleasant enough, although the story of a prisoner thinking of his family retreads the superior Give My Love to Rose (both of which were sang at Folsom Prison). Available on Bootleg Vol. 2.
  • I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight – An outtake from the sessions, this is a Carter-family enhanced tale of heartbreak that would have closed the album nicely, although would have broken the manual labour theme. Available on the Legend boxset.
  • Ring of Fire/I’d Still Be There – If there’s a Johnny Cash song, this is it, matched only by I Walk the Line and Folsom Prison Blues. This one was famously co-written by June Carter and stands to this day as a testimony of their burning, tempestuous romance. The mariachi trumpets are now legend, but when listened to in the context of his career to date, entirely innovative. Finally Law and Jones’ production experiments succeed. The b-side, I’d Still be There, is a piano-led tearjerker. It’s nice enough but absolutely overshadowed. Available on Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash.
  • The Matador – The follow-up single to Ring of Fire, The Matador tries to capitalize on the Mexican sound, but fails dramatically. For one, the echo is overdone. Second, the Carter Family’s backing vocals revert to the overblown choral sound found on his early 60’s work. Last, the recording quality is just abysmal. Where Ring of Fire was clear and punchy, this one is filled with unwanted distortion, sounding like a scratched record even on modern remasters. Available on the Legend boxset and many compilations.
  • El Matador/Fuego D’Amour – Johnny re-records the vocals to The Matador and Ring of Fire in Spanish. These are just as clunky and awkward as his earlier German-language 45’s. It should be noted, however, that the backing track to El Matador sounds better than the English-language original. The trumpets are still distorted, but the reverb is dialed back, and the flamenco-style acoustic strumming is cleaned up and brought to the fore. Available on Bear Records Sets.