(As published in the Times of Acadiana unless otherwise noted...)
Johnny Cash: American V: A Hundred Highways (Lost Highway/American)—Yep, Cash and Rick Rubin had one more in the can, and, nope, it’s not (very) morbid.
Johnny Cash: Man in Black: Live in Denmark 1971 (Country Music Video/Legacy)—The set looks like Hee Haw, the Danish crowd seems clueless if appreciative, and those distractions are all that’s wrong with this very entertaining 18-song DVD. With Carl Perkins, the Carter Family, and the Statler Brothers getting solo spots, the pace remains brisk. And it’s great to see Cash himself so vibrant and eager to please. Lagniappe: he reads a prepared statement in Danish. Four johns noir out of five.
Johnny Cash: Personal File (Columbia/Legacy)—No wonder Rick Rubin had such an easy time getting Johnny Cash to pick up an acoustic guitar and sing his favorite songs into a mic throughout the ’90s. It turns out Cash had already been doing something similar on his own for years. He recorded about half of these recently discovered performances in 1973 simply to document the music that had come to mean the most to him over the course of his life, adding to them in stolen moments until 1982. Aside from six originals, the twenty-five selections on Disc One reflect the influence of country radio and other small-town musical sources (high-school music and English teachers, talent contests, family); the twenty-four hymns and gospel songs on Disc Two, eleven of which he wrote himself, reflect the influence of Jesus Christ. If admirers who overlook Cash’s weakness for bathos will have a hard time explaining his recitation of “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” skeptics who downplay his prophetic powers will be flummoxed by “If Jesus Ever Loved a Woman,” a lyrical love song of unknown origin that should have Pierre Plantard rolling over and telling Dan Brown the news. Rating: Four time capsules out of five.
Rosanne Cash: Black Cadillac (Capitol)—At first this inevitable concept album about the death of not only Johnny and June Cash but also Vivian Distin (Johnny’s first wife and Rosanne’s natural mother) struck me as both too narrow and too didactic. What would people who didn’t know and love Rosanne Cash’s parents the way Rosanne did and does make of her poignant attempts to say goodbye and to hold on simultaneously? What would the religiously indifferent or the many evangelical believers whom Johnny and June numbered among their fans make of the songs fueled by disappointment with Christianity’s insufficiency? Eventually, though, the music--by which I mean the lyrics, the melodies, the instrumentation, and most of all Rosanne’s remarkably expressive voice--turned me around. Not only are death and loss universal subjects, but Johnny Cash was one of the most universal figures of the last fifty years, a veritable pop-cultural Walt Whitman. A songs about him is a song about multitudes. As for the anti-Christian didacticism, it’s really more “anti-Christians.” She laments that “no one in the Bible / craves [her] company,” she assures zealots that she’s “not a soul [they] need to save,” and she succinctly points out that “[i]t’s a strange new world we live in, / where the church leads you to hell / and the lawyers get the money / for the lives they divide and sell.” Final verdict: not too narrow or too didactic at all. Rating: Four-and-a-half purities of heart out of five.
Cheap Trick: Rockford (Big 3/Cheap Trick)—Not since That ’70s Show was real life have these guys wanted us to want them this bad.
The Church: Uninvited, like the Clouds (Cooking Vinyl)—This psychedelic folk-rock awash in rainy-day jangle will remind longtime fans of what they first liked about the Church. If in the ’80s these Aussies added sparkle to a “paisely underground” movement into which they were sometimes unfairly lumped, these days they add gravity, if only by virtue of their drummer, to whatever cosmic pop is currently floating off into the ether. Even at its most derivative (the Pink Floyd-meets-U2 stretches, say), the music makes for the kind of background listening that holds up fairly well in the foreground too. As with so much melancholy pop, few standout tracks emerge once the clouds of inattention disperse. “Unified Field,” however, really stands out, and the reveries inspired by the haze into which much of the rest blurs will almost surely be pleasant. Rating: Three daydream believers out of five.
Nat King Cole: The Very Best of Nat King Cole (Capitol)—One disc, twenty-eight songs, one silky classic after another, less like Sinatra with soul than Johnny Mathis reared on jazz.
Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint: The River in Reverse (Verve Forecast)—That the road to hell may be paved with good intentions doesn’t mean that all roads paved with good intentions lead to hell. Sometimes they merely lead to harmless if aesthetically misbegotten collaborations like this one, which would have already gone the way of Elvis Costello’s other dubious duet albums if Katrina hadn’t turned New Orleans, here represented by Allen Toussaint, into a sort of national underdog deserving of vague if sincere sympathies and susceptible to commercial if unintentional exploitation. Most telling album-cover detail: Costello’s smiling, Toussaint’s not. Rating: Two-and-a-half meshes that didn’t take out of five.