Tag Archives: USA

[170] Johnny Cash – American Recordings

8 Apr

I think maybe you already have to be a Cash fan to enjoy this album. So it should come as no surprise that I love this 1994 album, and the rest of the American Recordings he produced right up until his death in 2003.

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However, I do find it slightly unexpected that it was these stripped down, cowboy-gospel tinged songs that caught the attention of a new generation and made Johnny Cash relevant (yet) again.

This is an album I bought when it first came out, one which I enjoyed, but which never really got into regular rotation in the list of Cash albums I periodically play. Perhaps this is because it is hard to hear the pain in every note here, a pain which grew stronger as the voice grew weaker with each successive American Recording release, peaking / troughing with the magnificently tormented cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” on American IV: The Man Comes Around.

Each track on this first American installment is a perfectly formed, tiny-clean morsel of story song which, despite the pristine nature of the studio work, is somehow leaner even than the raw live recording of At Folsom Prison. I find it sometimes hard to get through the entire thing in one setting, even if the run time is only a beat over 40 minutes.

Perhaps I am once again underestimating how much pain the rest of the music buying population is in at any given moment.

Cash actively seeks out difficult situations here – a crime of passion, a veteran’s sad return to civilian life, and lots of mortality – and the super-minimal orchestration leave nothing for the words to hide behind. Cash is preaching and, though I often dislike preachers, in this case I believe the things his eyes claim to have seen, believe the pain his heart claims to have felt, both of which are clear in the diminished yet still deep-wide voice.

Revisiting songs he first wrote and recorded over thirty years prior, as in “Delia’s Gone”, is fascinating, but it is the new recordings which truly catch the attention.

Returning to the well of Kris Kristofferson – who wrote Cash’s 1970 hit “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” – “Why Me Lord” is a song that makes me profoundly uncomfortable yet which I can’t help but listen to again and again. And songs penned for Cash by Tom Waits and Glenn Danzig (as well as a Leonard Cohen cover) round out the stylistic feel of the album, setting the template for four more records in the series.

This is not the sound or style that I immediately think of when I hear The Man In Black in my head. And this is not an album I am going to queue up on Spotify when introducing him to my 10-year-old daughter. But in moments that call for quiet reflection on mortality, there are worse places I could start, and I can understand why Tom Moon paired this late career recording with the classic era At Folsom Prison as  bookends to exploring the career of the unique Johnny Cash.

Next Time: Dorival Caymmi – Caymmi E Seu Violao

Owned before blogging? Yes (14 of 170 = 8%)
Heard before blogging? Yes (23 of 170 = 14%)
Recommend? Yes (142 of 170 = 84%)

[169] Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison

18 Mar

Well, this one takes me back.

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When I was a kid, my Mom, Dad, brother and I would regularly take road trips from the suburbia a couple of hours outside of London to the suburbia immediately outside of the city proper to visit with the extended family that stayed put when my Grandma and Grandpa moved to “the back of beyond” in the ’50s.  And on those road trips my folks would always play one of the same four cassette tapes:  an Elaine Page collection, a Lloyd-Webber cast recording, an album by Israeli folk singer Topol, or Johnny Cash’s Greatest Hits.

It turns out that my Dad is a big Cash fan.

So I’ve known and loved these songs since before I had long hair, before I could choose my own soundtrack.  It’s probably fair to say that, however subliminally, “The Man in Black” helped to form my fashion sense, and predisposed me to gravitate towards outlaws and rebels, at least sonically.

At Folsom Prison is an album I have owned and listed to for years, perhaps decades, although I can’t actually recall the last time I hit play on it before revisiting those road trips for the 1,000.  And the sense memory of sitting in the back of our red Toyota Cressida, singing along especially to the comedy songs “One Piece At A Time”, “The One On The Left”, and “A Boy Named Sue” is immediate, and almost overwhelming.  The deeper-than-deep voice which still somehow finds range for melody, the inviolable boom-chikka rhythm of guitar and drum, the lyrical wordplay, the moments of laughter, the connection to the listener.  They are all immediately remembered, and immensely comforting.

The selection of tracks on this live recording is fascinating. There are the prison songs “Cocaine Blues”, “25 Minutes To Go”, and of course the track which brought the performer to this particular venue.  There are the traditional mournful sounds of “Green, Green Grass Of Home” and “Send A Picture Of Mother.”  There is the silliness of “Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog” and “Flushed From The Bathroom Of Your Heart.”  And there is the precise fire of the duet with June Carter, “Jackson”, perhaps my favorite song on the album.

Cash giggles his way through a number of tracks, teasing the inmates about not laughing during the songs since they are recording, so he “can’t say hell or [exletive deleted].”  His relaxed banter is as much a part of his persona as the songs, the image.  And the album is occasionally interrupted by announcements from the warden, making this a singular experience.

Listening to the range of 16 songs across 45 minutes I am as ever struck by the wide variety of styles that Cash perfects, how the raw warts and all recording elevates the whole, and how many signature songs are still missing.  Listening to At Folsom Prison makes me want to listen to a lot more Cash.

Could there be a better recommendation to listen to an album?

Next Time:  Johnny Cash – American Recordings

Owned before blogging? Yes (13 of 169 = 8%)
Heard before blogging? Yes (22 of 169 = 13%)
Recommend? Yes (141 of 169 = 83%)

[168] Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

25 Feb

I was extraordinarily excited at the opportunity to explore this album, completely ready to be blown away. A drummer-singer-songwriter in the country-indie-punk world? Where do I sign?

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But the first play through was neither what I expected nor what I wanted. It all sounds so safe and bland – an engaging voice which speaks of a mind that has listened to a lot of Patsy Cline, over wandering guitars and drums.

Where is the fire? Where is the attitude? I tap along to “Margaret vs. Pauline”, then carry on with my day without noticing that the music has continued.

It is clear very quickly that I am going to need to take a listen to the lyrics to see what it is Moon is singling out here.

And while the lyrics are unusual and interesting, I find them disconnected from the music. It is all very pleasant (even the moments of unpleasantness) but again I’m left wondering why Moon chose Neko Case over Tori Amos in his 1,000?

It’s not the first time that the omission of one of my Top 10 albums – Little Earthquakes – is perhaps unfairly coloring my response to an apparently important and seminal female recording artist who came after Tori.

I would be surprised if it is the last, and for that I apologize.

So, before finally posting this entry, I give Fox Confessor . . . another spin, and it appears that the songs made a little more of an impression on first listen, since each track is now comfortable and somewhat familiar, if still lacking the hoped for fire.

I think this one might be on me rather than Moon – overlaying unrealistic expectations on top of an album that is one thing, and blaming it that it is not something else.

Next Time: Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison

Owned before blogging? No (12 of 168 = 7%)
Heard before blogging? No (21 of 168 = 13%)
Recommend? No (140 of 168 = 83%)

[161] The Original Carter Family – 1927 to 1934

13 May

Country music, perhaps even America as we know it, would be profoundly different without The Carter Family.

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Cataloging and recording the songs handed down the generations throughout the South, A. P. Carter preserved a legacy and honed a sound which is still relevant and recognizable today.  The range of musical ground covered is dizzying, well over five hours of songs of praise, of despair, of celebration, of love, of longing.

Spiritual or sea shanty, ballad or barroom romp, each song is anchored by a metronomic rhythm section usually consisting of nothing more than a single guitar which lays down an unbreakable beat.  Over this foundation, fascinating story songs unfold, cleanly melodic and enhanced by close harmony whenever a chorus rolls around, by strict unison singing elsewhere.

For nearly ninety-year-old recordings, the sound quality here is quite astounding.

I love the way just two voices and one guitar can fill a room.  I love the sheer quantity of found music in evidence here.  I love that I can enfold myself in the sound that  Johnny Cash and June Carter (and a multitude of others) heard, that so inspired them to create music of their own.

And I hate how often otherwise open-minded people will casually admit that “I like all kinds of music except Country . . .”

Next Week:  Elliott Carter – Symphonia

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 161 = 7%)
Heard before blogging? No.  (21 of 161 = 13%)
Recommend? Yes. (135 of 161 = 84%)

[160] James Carr – You Got My Mind Messed Up

6 May

Another artist that time appears to have passed by.  Another record I find myself falling in love with.

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Despite the derivative sounding up-tempos, despite the lack of a signature hit, there is more than enough heart and soul, passion and pain on You Got My Mind Messed Up to catch my attention midway through the first listen and not let up for a week or more.

It is the evocative down-tempo tunes which initially enchant, not as catchy or heartbreaking as those of Arthur Alexander, but polished and profound nonetheless.

As usual for this era, the session musicians backing Carr are phenomenal, building him up and keeping out of his way, never pulling focus but oh-so accomplished when you do actually notice them.

For once, although I fully endorse Tom Moon’s inclusion in the thousand, I understand why Carr’s name is not a household one.  There is no single song here that demands attention, nothing that makes a listener sing along with more than perhaps just the evocative song titles themselves.  The rest is beautiful, but there is no urgency, no immediacy.

If this sounds like a lukewarm recommendation, then I am not doing this album justice.  It is the kind of record that gets into your head and under your skin – it certainly got into and under mine.

For all its apparent shortcomings You Got My Mind Messed Up is the kind of album that gets played again and again.  And if I am not accurately articulating the reason why, you’ll just have to go have a listen for yourself . . .

Next Week:  The Original Carter Family – 1927 to 1934

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 160 = 8%)
Heard before blogging? No.  (21 of 160 = 13%)
Recommend? Yes. (134 of 160 = 84%)

[159] The Caravans – The Best of The Caravans

29 Apr

I know I’m going to be recommending this recording about 10 seconds into the first track.

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This is what I think of when I think of Gospel – fervor and phenomenal ability inextricably linked, outstanding talent married to energetic intent.  The vocals are so good, so searing and moving and committed.  The organ backing is so crisp and uplifting.

Everything is so bouncing and behaving.

More than anything, these songs confirm that I was correct in my assessment of The Abyssinian Baptist Choir way back near the start of this journey.  The Caravans clearly illustrate how Gospel should sound – there is just no reason or excuse for accepting any musically inferior imitation, historical importance be damned.

Not when I can hear soloist after soloist roaring and wailing their magnificent stuff, paving the way for the crossover to come.

Here is the sound that Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and so many others co opted into the secular world, changing music for the better.  Here is one of the most obvious influences on early Rock and Roll, and so eventually on all of my favorite artists, songs and sounds.

This is what it’s all about.  It’s so good I don’t even care that the performers are praising god.

Next Week:  James Carr – You Got My Mind Messed Up

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 159 = 8%)
Heard before blogging? No.  (21 of 159 = 13%)
Recommend? Yes. (133 of 159 = 84%)

[158] Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band – Trout Mask Replica

22 Apr

As weird and as random as its title, there is much to ponder and perplex in this 80 minutes of avant garde something or other.

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Color me unsurprised that Zappa was involved (as producer.)

There is an aura of experimental wonderfulness throughout this recording.  It is certainly not for everyone, or for every occasion, but there is so much to interpret and explore that I do not think I will ever grow tired of hearing the Rock-y, Blues-y, Folk-y, Jazz-y, Spoken Word sounds that skitter all over the place on each play.

The vocals at time remind me of Shel Silverstein’s wonderful, not safe for work or kids interpretations of some of his stories – both engage in very much the same way.

The guitars are in constant motion, twiddling in concentric circles.  The horns when they are featured squeak and squawk and demand attention.  And every now and then a nugget of wisdom or a moment of sublime discomfort peeks through the stream of consciousness lyrics.

It is loose and messy and sprawling, and despite the potential for negative connotations in all these adjectives, I am a fan.

Next Week: The Caravans – The Best of The Caravans

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 158 = 8%)
Heard before blogging? No.  (21 of 158 = 13%)
Recommend? Yes. (132 of 158 = 84%)

[152] David Byrne and Brian Eno – My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts

11 Mar

“It’s got a beat, and you can dance to it.”

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Names I know, a sound balanced somewhere between those I tend not to seek out and those I have actively studied, this experimental mix of found sounds and sampled beats is a wild mix of hit and miss, of cerebral and base.

Byrne and Eno had both already shown an ear for a cutting edge tune – separately and in collaboration – before this 1981 release, and it is that understanding of how listeners respond to rhythm and repetition which combines here to meld the weird and unexpected parts of each track into a coherent whole.

Beyond the looped guitar stabs and snippets of talk radio hosts and callers, sermonizers and exorcists, the pair also sample Middle Eastern vocals and African beats.  I don’t think Rock, certainly not Pop, and not even World when I’m listening to this sprawling and complex recording, but I do think long and hard about the sounds that are playing.

I think it is entirely possible that I don’t actually *like* this.  That does not stop me spending an engrossing week exploring and experiencing it, enough so that I have no problem recommending it.  I hear the experimentation, the craft, the artists’ choices.  I also hear the influence it had on the next decade plus of popular music, even if I did not always enjoy the sounds so influenced.

Would I rather hear “Psycho Killer” or “Once In A Lifetime”?  Absolutely.  (And I will, 18 letters down the line.)  In the meantime, I fall back on my longtime answer to the question, “What kind of music do you listen to?”

I listen to anything that took real passion and talent to compose and perform.  Also late-80s, early-90s Rock which I acknowledge at times took neither . . .

Next Week: Cafe Tacvba – Cuatro Caminos

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 152 = 8%)
Heard before blogging? No.  (21 of 152 = 14%)
Recommend? Yes. (127 of 152 = 84%)

[151] The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man

4 Mar

I came pretty close to upsetting a lot of people when I began organizing my thoughts on this inarguably seminal album.

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I love the Dylan-penned title track which opens the recording, and was excited to hear the rest, only to find the first few plays leaving me utterly cold.  I’ve heard it all before without seemingly ever having heard these particular songs.

So, I took a step back, playing other beloved Byrds singles – including the magnificent “Eight Miles High” and the moving version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” – and I’m wondering what it is I’m missing, why it is Mr. Tambourine Man that gets such an emphatic nod while these “better” songs are left out.

I’m just not getting the love.

The high points of the album initially feel like little more than a tease – in the close harmonies and jingle jangle guitars I’m hearing mid-career Beatles and wondering why I shouldn’t just go back and listen to A Hard Day’s Night or Rubber Soul.

But then something happens.

A couple of the tracks which had previously just flowed past me without any affect began to leave an impression, and it was a childhood in England that offered the band a way into my head and heart.

It turns out I have heard some of these songs before, just never like this.

At first unrecognized by my ear, suddenly I am singing along with the playground chant “Bells of Rhymney” all grown up in its psychedelic splendor.  Soon after, I realize that this may be my favorite version of the wartime standard, “We’ll Meet Again.”

And I find myself reevaluating my every listen to this album to date.

Heard on its own merits, unencumbered by expectations and comparison, Mr. Tambourine Man is a fun and breezy ride, full of new Dylan lyrics and old folk favorites.  Once I recalibrate my ear to the Folk end of the spectrum, from my anticipated Rock assumptions, the acclaim becomes so much more understandable, the music so much more enjoyable.

And I get to remain friends with those few people who are still with me after failing to recommend Pet Sounds and Heartbreaker . . .

Next Week:  David Byrne and Brian Eno – My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 151 = 8%)
Heard before blogging? No.  (21 of 151 = 14%)
Recommend? Yes. (126 of 151 = 83%)

[148] R L Burnside – Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down

12 Feb

From the first, there is a tension between the ancient music and the modern recording techniques here – Burnside’s old-as-the-hills voice captured in stereo, high fidelity clarity.

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The sound is of the turn of the most recent millennium, far more than merely the one man with a guitar aesthetic of another hundred years past.  While the songwriting is simple – classic even – the instrumentation is full of synthesizers and drum loops mingled with the expected guitar wails and harmonica bleats.  And while this might alienate purists, it surely opened wide the door to the Blues for a generation and an audience which might otherwise have dismissed it.

Some of the scratching – for example in the upbeat “Miss Maybelle” – would not have sounded out of place on an 80s Hip Hop record, yet Burnside’s deep, measured voice anchors the feel of the whole in a less fleeting, more enduring and endearing place.

And I can see “Got Messed Up” – a sleazy, grooving jam with lilting guitars and moaning horns over a mechanical backbeat- finding its way onto any number of morning after playlists.

I can get excited by the muddy slide guitar, the underwater vocals and just when it starts to sound like any other talented Blues ensemble, a modern sound intrudes, capturing attention, integrated just enough so as not to distract from the whole.

And if you’re going to cover “Chain Of Fools”, you better have something up your sleeve to avoid less than flattering comparisons to the definitive Aretha Franklin version.  Burnside’s disaffected, almost industrial take is completely unlike any I have heard before, a valiant exploration of this beloved standard.

Once more, Tom Moon is highlighting a sound I have never heard before, but it is different this time.  I have heard all of the component parts before – enjoyed some, endured others – but in combining them together, Burnside has created a new sound, almost familiar, almost alienating, entirely fascinating.

Next Week: Kate Bush – The Kick Inside

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 148 = 8%)
Heard before blogging? No.  (20 of 148 = 14%)
Recommend? Yes. (123 of 148 = 83%)

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