Archive for October, 2014

FamilyChristmasEach of Johnny Cash’s four Christmas albums gives a clear evocation of his life at the time.  The Christmas Spirit, released in 1963, was a lonesome affair, so chilly that you can almost feel the wind whipping across the barren fields of Johnny’s Arkansas youth.  By 1972, life had changed dramatically for Cash. He had risen through the dark years of the drug-addled 60s, and emerged clean(er), happily married, the father of a new son, and with a renewed faith in tow.   If ever there was a calm period in Cash’s life, this was it.

As the title implies, The Johnny Cash Family Christmas is all about family and for anyone who’s seen Johnny’s 1969-71 variety show, he regarded his whole travelling entourage as his family.  This album, then, is really like sitting in the middle of the living room with Johnny’s crew trading Christmas songs and stories.  Where the sound of Christmas Spirit was big and echoed, this one is warm and friendly. For once, Cash was at home in his own skin, and he wanted to welcome the world into that life.

Apart from a few classics – Jingle Bells, Silent Night – these songs are mostly originals sung by the respective writers.  Most of the tunes, though are throwaways.  Johnny’s little brother Tommy sings a sweet, but forgettable number about old downhome Christmases in That Christmasy Feeling.  Carl Perkins, recites a spoken narrative about being a father, accompanied by a Larry Butler-led piano rendition of What a Friend We Have in Jesus.  Larry takes a moment in the spotlight with the schmaltzy instrumental My Merry Christmas Song.  If you like “special music” during the offering at your local evangelical church, this one will be for you.  If not, you’ll probably skip this one. Statler Brother Lew Dewitt sings a brief and forgettable ballad too – An Old Fashioned Tree.

Thankfully, there are some highlights too, and more often than not, they’re thanks to Johnny’s wife June.  She and Mother Maybelle Carter give a hilarious introduction to the banjo-led romp Christmas Time’s a Comin’. She and Johnny share a sweet, if somewhat trite, ballad on Christmas With You, that is one of their finer moments on record together. And it was she who penned with Jan Howard the highlight of the album: Christmas as I Knew it.  This one’s a stirring narrative of Johnny’s childhood Christmases and the introduction by his own mother lets you know that when he sings of poverty he knows what he’s talking about.

The rest of the album is pleasant enough. Jingle Bells is lighthearted and fun. Silent Night is touchingly reverent with everyone joining in.  Merry Christmas Mary shows off Cash’s famous baritone. And Cash’s rendition of Statler Brother Harold Reid’s King of Love is a moving ballad that speaks to the heart of Christmas, tying Christmas and Easter together:

 Jesus died the world was dark
Not a sound was there to hark
The breath was gone, He hung His head
But wait, let us rejoice

For He has risen from the dead
He was a child, He was a son
He was a man among men
He was a friend, He was a Saint
He was The King of Love

Too bad the Statlers had to join in on backing vocals – I still can’t stand their over-the-top harmonies!

Perhaps the real treat, though, are the dialogue segments woven between the songs.  Here we get to listen in on Carl telling stories of lighting firecrackers and Harold reminiscing about his drunk uncle. Most importantly, though, are the stories of bassist Marshall Grant and others about the simple Christmases they lived through in the rural South, particularly in the depression.  These tales of another era are true gems. While they sound like they’re relaxing in Johnny’s posh Hendersonville living room, we’re reminded of just how far these men and women had come.

As it turns out, this was really the eye of the storm of Cash’s life.  By the end of the decade, Jan would join the Carter Family band and allegedly have an affair with Johnny. Marshall Grant would be fired after 25 years of service. And, sadly, the drugs would return.  But here we have a moment of peace, listening to Johnny enjoy Christmas with family and friends.  The album’s not perfect, but it evokes a time and place.

For the most part, I find this one hard to listen to shuffled with other Christmas albums, but as a whole, it’s nice to pull out every year or two as a Christmas nugget.

Probably a 3 or 3.5 out of 5, but because I’m all of a sudden in the Christmas spirit, I’ll give it a 4/5.

Other songs from the era:

  • I See Men as Trees Walking (Live) – In 1972 Campus Crusade for Christ, an emerging evangelical organization still active today, organized hosted Explo 72, a week-long conference in Dallas that culminated in an eight-hour concert attracting 100-200,000. Johnny and Kris Kristofferson were on the bill, but so too were Andrae Crouch and Larry Norman. Many today regard this as the beginning of the “Jesus music” movement and ultimately what has become “CCM” – contemporary Christian music. A soundtrack ensued which features a live of version of this tune from Johnny’s yet-to-be-released Jesus project, The Gospel Road.  The sound quality’s not great, but Johnny’s band is cracking, and his performance, including a brief sermon, is heartfelt. Available on the out-of-print LP “Jesus Sound Explosion” and often on YouTube.
  • Live in the Netherlands – Never released, but widely available as a bootleg, is this fine example of Cash’s early 70s live sound. His band and voice were in fine form and the setlists were great integrating oldies (I Walk the Line, Orange Blossom Special) and his newer narrative-oriented gems (Sunday Morning Coming Down, If I Were A Carpenter).

commonwealthFull disclosure: I am a huge Sloan fan.  Been following them since their debut EP, Peppermint, and fell in love them when they released Coax Me as a single from their masterpiece second album, Twice Removed.  Back in high school, I made a pilgrimage to their headquarters in Halifax (bought the split 7” with Eric’s Trip from Patrick’s hands, then walked across the street to Sam the Record Man and picked up the smashing Stood Up/Same Old Flame 7”. Didn’t buy the clear vinyl first pressing of Twice Removed with lyric sheet, though…. Whoops!).

A lot’s happened since then, most notably, we’ve all grown old.  Sloan’s sound has developed from shoegaze, to retro-slacker pop, to 70s rock, to 80s rock, and now into an amalgam all their own.  The key to their shapeshifting and perhaps their longevity, though, has been the fact that all four members write and sing their own songs.  Which leads us to their latest release, Commonwealth.  In an interview last year I believe it was drummer Andrew Scott who mentioned that for an indie band today, you need to do something interesting to convince listeners to actually buy an album.  This time round, they’ve done something interesting for sure: inspired by Kiss’ solo record project in the late 70s, they’ve crafted a double LP with one side each by each member. Oh yeah, and each side is named for a suit of cards and if you order now, you get a custom deck of Sloan playing cards!

To be honest, this isn’t much of a departure.  Beginning with their third LP, One Chord to Another, drummer Andrew began recording his songs in full himself (he had moved from Halifax to Toronto, spent two days in Halifax recording drums for the other boys’ tracks, then returned home to the Big Smoke to record his own, then mailed them in).  It may sound a bit business-like, but it seems to be the glue that has held this band together all these years after a near-implosion amidst big label pressures to dismantle Twice Removed (“Make it sound like Nirvana” the execs said!).

I’ll get to the point – apart from one side, this LP is superb.

The first disc features guitarist Jay Ferguson on side 1 and bassist Chris Murphy on side 2.  In and of itself you’d be hard pressed to find 10 better tracks of power pop.  In a sense, Jay has often been the odd one out in the band.  Never rocking as hard as the others, drummer Andrew once called his songs “fruity”.  Over the years, though, he’s developed a pop sensibility that comes to perfection here.  All those years of hand claps, on-the-beat piano stomping, glistening guitar lines, and ooh-aah harmonies come together magically.  We’ve Come This Far is a quick glam rocker asserting Sloan’s commitment to follow their own path, You’ve Got a Lot on Your Mind is a blazing quick pop rocker, Three Sisters flips the coin for a softer, yet still upbeat pop tune, and Cleopatra is one of the catchiest tunes Sloan have ever released.  He wraps up his side with an acoustic ballad, Neither Here Nor There.  Throughout, he upholds his nostalgic romanticism, dreaming of bygone Hollywood, wistful tours of Europe, and the comforts of home.

On the flip side, Chris continues the pop extravaganza with a slightly harder edge.  Closing track You Don’t Excuses to be Good seems to present his view of the Sloan mythology: again, they’ve gone over 20 years as an independent band, blazing their own path and managing to pay the bills without being L.A. superstars.  Get Out is a quick rocker, So Far So Good is a mournful piano ballad with a beautiful switch from minor to major key, and Misty’s Beside Herself is full of clever chord changes and catchy melodies.  It’s opener Carried Away that is the absolute gem of the whole album, though.  In many ways this is the sister track to one of Chris’ past hits, The Other Man.  Where he was once the man a woman was cheating with, now he is the one being cheated on.  Despite the dour subject matter, it’s presented in a perfect 3-and-a-half minute pop tune that will be stuck in your head for a long time.  Absolute perfection.

Side three, unfortunately, is where things go slightly amiss.  Guitarist Patrick Pentland has been behind many of the band’s bigger hits.  He’s got a knack for a catchy rock tune as well as the occasional heartwarming ballad. The bad news is this time out he gives us a mere 4 tracks spanning 12 minutes of sludgy 70s rock lacking any notable hooks, and bogged down by a whole lot of bitterness.  Apparently, Pat is becoming a grumpy old man.  13 (Under a Bad Sign) and Take it Easy are almost indistinguishable, two 70s rockers that drag on, devoid of any notable riffs or solos.  It seems he has been taking his advice to “Take it Easy” too seriously.  I wish a bit more work were given here.  What’s Inside is a sluggish psychedelic ballad with none of the vulnerability that have made past love songs of his (I Can Feel It, It’s In Your Eyes) so charming.  Last, despite being released as the advanced single, Keep Swinging (Downtown) is just boring. It sounds like the stuff they used to toss off as a bonus track for the Japanese release (see Out to Lunch from Navy Blues).  The acoustic outro is interesting, but by this point, I’ve largely lost interest. In terms of lyrical themes, it seems to me that the crustier Pat gets, the more ironic his songs become. “Unkind” was an infection rocker off of 2012’s The Double Cross, but it seems that it’s far more unkind to write a pop single about someone being unkind, than to simply “suck the life out of the room”, as the lover he points his finger at unforgivably does.  Beginning with 2001’s If It Feels Good (another catchy rocker), Patrick has returned time and time again to his laissez-faire manifesto, all the while become nastier towards those who don’t share his carefree ways (ex-girlfriends, believers in 2000 year-old magical carpenters…). I wish he would lighten up a bit or at least put his bitter pill to a memorable riff.

The fourth side, then, is where things get really interesting.  Andrew gives us an epic 18-minute long suite unlike anything Sloan have ever attempted before.  His arc as a songwriter is an interesting one.  He was too timid to sing his sole contribution to their debut album (500 Up on Smeared), so Patrick did the honours.  That tune, however, is the one I revisit the most from their shoegazer days.  Since then, he’s grown in confidence and has a sound all his own.  He tends towards modalism, often sitting on a chord (usually A) for most of a verse or chorus.  He was the first to use tape splicing to build mini-suites.  Where the others tend towards melodic lead guitar, when Andrew pulls out his big old Grestch 6120 (or recently a Telecaster Deluxe), he scratches out wild, unbridled solos.  He can veer towards wordiness (apparently the first draft of People of the Sky had ten+ verses).  He experiments with dissonance.  While some dismiss him as the oddball in the band, he has remained my favourite from day one.  In recent years, though, I have found his contributions somewhat lacking.  On the oft-maligned Pretty Together, I think he reached his apex, contributed three tracks which had a sound as big as a prairie sky.  Then, on Action Pact, he had no songs at all!  Since then, he has been pushing in new directions without, in my opinion, quite getting where he wants to go.  He contributed mostly song fragments to Never Hear the End of It, and then on the last two releases has veered towards Dylanesque lyricism with a couple of experiments in garage rock and reggae along the way.

This time round, though, he gets it absolutely right.  As the title suggests, Forty-Eight Portraits, is influenced as much by his recent explorations as a visual artist as his life as a musician.  He uses the music as a canvas to paint a series of interconnected impressions of life as an independent artist.  He’s grown content raising his kids, hacking out songs in his band, and painting in his garage. Rather than looking down on the rest of the world (hello, Patrick!) invites the world to come along with him – He opens this epic with, “I say we’re going together,” and by the end speaks to the unbelievers, “we’re saying a prayer for you.”  The music moves from abstract piano and dog barking, into driving rock, a ballad duet with Chris, garage riffing, grandiose string passages, a children’s chorus, and then a hard rock instrumental conclusion.  Following the songs many changes takes some getting used to, but is ultimately rewarding.

While Patrick’s side is disappointing, the other three are so inspiring, I have to applaud Sloan and give them a 4.5/5.  Truly excellent.