American Recordings (Box Set)
Americana Music that changed American Music
When I was first told that I was to receive this package of 6 LP’s I genuinely thought it would be a simple exercise to review them; possibly even from memory; but after listening to all six albums (via download) in sequence on a long car journey and also dipping in and out of the actual vinyl on an actual record player owned by my only ‘hipster friend’ I’ve had to change my opinion; because while some tracks and albums haven’t aged as well as others; some songs I’d completely forgot about now sound absolutely outstanding.
As you know; Cash had been without a record label for several years and was now just a t-shirt or poster on a student bedroom wall, when there was a knock on the door and a hirsute young man asked if “Johnny was in and did he want to hear some records?”
How Rick Rubin convinced Johnny Cash to record a bunch of contempory songs with only the aid of an acoustic guitar is still a mystery; but the resulting album changed Country music forever and is possibly the forefather of what we now call Americana Music.
So here goes; in chronological order –
This album had probably been out for about a year when I first bought it; on the back of ‘word of mouth’ reviews as; in the days before the interweb and numerous niche magazines that have come and gone over the years, that’s how we found out about new music in the olden days.
I can remember as if it was yesterday the tingly feeling I had when I first heard the opening cut Delia’s Gone; and it was pretty much the same last week when the needle came down on the record player.
Listening now in 2015, it’s difficult to remember how radical it was to hear songs like Glenn Danzig’s Thirteen, Nick Lowe’s The Beast in Me, Cohen’s Bird on a Wire and Tom Wait’s Down There by The Train sung in such a stripped back way; and alongside Cash’s own Drive On, Redemption and his best friend, Kris Kristofferson’s Why Me Lord? we had an album that still stands tall today; even if Tennessee Stud still sticks out like a sore thumb.
AMERICAN II: Unchained
While the previous album had been Cash alone with just a single acoustic guitar; the record company threw a heap of money at the follow up and backed Cash with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers who were flavour of the month; and the ensuing sound was a lot more ‘Country Rock’ and time hasn’t done it too many favours.
Rusty Cage; originally a hit for noiseniks Soundgarden still sounds amazing after nearly twenty years; and I still love Petty’s Southern Accents which still has the ability to shock and could have been written with Cash in mind.
Over the intervening years I’d completely forgot about Sea of Heartbreak, Mean Eyed Cat and I’ve Been Everywhere; but they now sound like the type of trite songs Cash recorded in the 1960’s and just don’t fit in; or at least don’t fit in with my memory.
Perhaps I felt the same way at the time; as I remembered very few songs; but it all sounds as if everyone was trying ‘too hard’ and the result is all a bit tired and boring.
AMERICAN III: Solitary Man
By the time this was released Cash was now back in the limelight; and his declining health was a topic of conversation; as his voice sounds tired and strained; but the choice of songs suit a man looking his mortality in the face and giving it the bird!
Opening with Petty’s signature song I Won’t Back Down; Cash takes us back to basics again and boy does it still sound great today.
This is followed by the title track, Solitary Man, a little known Neil Diamond song which becomes the template for the album; and possibly my favourite ‘discovery’ after all these years.
Before I received the box set I tried to remember as many songs from the series as possible and four from ten came from this album, with U2’s One being the first on the list; and still sounds as powerful and introspective as I’d remembered and probably sounds like what I thought everything sounded like; as is Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat (how wrong was I?)
The fourth memorable song is Cash’s re-interpretation of Wayfaring Stranger which must be the template 70% of modern Roots artists use when they are writing their own songs; beautiful only goes part of the way to describe how it sounds.
My ‘discoveries’ here are Nobody from 1906 and Cash’s own Country Trash which I thought must have been a Dolly Parton cover; and as it’s not she could do worse than give it an airing on her next album.
Solitary Man has definitely stood the test of time and at least six songs would go on my American Music Best Of album.
AMERICAN IV: The Man Comes Around
Memory can play tricks on you as I’d thought Cash peaked with the first album in the series; but no, no, no!
AMERICAN IV is the album that we think they all sound like; as there’s not a single average, never mind a bad track here and the opening three songs, no four…no….five or possibly six are boom, boom, boom brilliant songs that bare comparison with anything in the history of recorded music.
Can you imagine what it was like to hear Cash’s gruff voice sounding like God on the preface to opening track The Man Comes Around? It still sounds brilliant today and will tomorrow too – and the songs not too shabby either J
Most other albums would go downhill there; but hey, this is Johnny Cash at his absolute peak and how Rick Rubin thought he could get away with giving the septuagenarian a Nine Inch Nails song to sing is nobody’s business; but the man must be a genius because; come on who on Earth still doesn’t get goosebumps hearing Cash’s rendition of Hurt?
My vocabulary isn’t strong enough to even begin to describe my feelings the first time I ever heard I Hung My Head and I still feel the same way when I heard it here and whenever it comes on the radio time stands still. Who knew and who cares that it was written by Sting!
Even old chestnuts like Bridge Over Troubled Water, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and the ubiquitous Danny Boy get dusted down and sung as if they were all going to be the last song the great man would ever sing. Perhaps he thought they were.
I still love this particular version of Personal Jesus, which is damn scary in places; especially bearing in mind the singers religious beliefs; plus I actually have two surprise packages here – the Ewan MacColl folk song which was a #1 Soul hit for Roberta Flack; The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and the alternative English National Anthem and WWII favourite We’ll Meet Again which both brought a lump to my throat as I’m sure they did Cash’s family.
For what it’s worth I’m not a supporter of the ‘vinyl is better’ campaign; but having the tracks spread over a double album on 180gm vinyl for better clarity actually sounds quite spectacular; just don’t tell anyone I said so.
A genuine 10/10 masterpiece.
AMERICAN V: A Hundred Highways
Hmmm; if only Rick Rubin and John Carter Cash had stopped with IV!
At best these tracks are artefacts and appeal to hardcore fans; but at worst they sound like an old man going through the motions at the behest of a record company.
If recorded earlier in the series, Gordon Lightfoot’s If You Could Read My Mind and Don Gibson’s Legend in My Time would have easily fit in on a couple of albums; but Cash’s voice doesn’t just sound tired he sounds in pain on some notes and most of the rest don’t do justice to the singer or indeed the ground breaking series.
AMERICAN VI: Ain’t No Grave
I will give the people involved the benefit of the doubt in this album; as although Johnny Cash doesn’t sound too comfortable here; the choice of tracks actually does become something of a fitting tribute to one of music’s greatest singers and interpreters of song.
Opening with the classic folk song Ain’t No Grave, Cash sounds like a man who believes every syllable that he utters and later his croaky rendition of Tom Paxton’s Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound is genuinely tear inducing; as is I Don’t Hurt Anymore.
Much like the second album too many songs included on this disc sound too contrived; especially as Cash was quite unwell during the recording sessions; but perhaps I’m reading too much into the songs with hindsight; and he himself wanted the songs released.
There you have it; a series of six albums from a man staring obscurity in the face at the beginning of the cycle and death at the end.
The artwork on these covers are every bit as important as what goes inside the sleeve; with the mono images and bold typography going a long way to promoting the image that we think of when we think of Johnny Cash now.
I’m serious when I say the first four albums went some big way to changing music; as I will repeat in 1994 this type of acoustic music was so far off the commercial radar it virtually didn’t exist anymore and took the King of Hip-Hop to breathe fresh life into it and the legendary Johnny Cash.
Before listening to these albums this week I’d not played them for years and my memory had obviously been playing tricks on me as I’d forgotten how many of his own songs Cash wrote for these albums; old and indeed new, plus how ‘average’ a lot of songs were; but and it’s a very big BUT the very best here; not just IV; are among the very best songs in the Americana/Roots/Country/Folk music canon of work and bare testimony to the genius of Johnny Cash.