December 9, 2007

Not Just Cashing In Before He Checked Out

From the time of its release, Johnny Cash’s American Recordings has been hailed by many as a brilliant collaboration between Cash and Rubin and now stands as Cash’s most legendary “studio” album, as evidenced by it being Cash’s lone studio album to place on the Rolling Stone list driving this blog. Disappointingly, this album falls a bit short of being worthy of such recognition in particular and greatness in general.

I love Johnny Cash as much as most other American music fans, particularly the two prison albums and other live material from throughout his career that I have heard. His studio work with Sun was good, too, but is somewhat stale in terms of performance and dynamics when compared to his live work; the live versions of many of the tunes found on the prison albums easily surpass the earlier Sun studio renditions. American Recordings suffers from some of the same problems: much like his Sun work, it feels like Cash is holding back here, and the material is not all superb.

There are some strong aspects of this album that have earned justifiable praise, and I definitely agree with those who praise Rick Rubin for his work on the album. In particular, Cash’s acoustic guitar on the album sounds amazing, and could provide a huge service to many aspiring musicians by showing them what an acoustic guitar is supposed to sound like.

I have grown so weary of hearing people try to play acoustic guitars over PA systems and have it sound so thin and lifeless that it makes me want to go get a Strat for the person to play instead. There was a reason why the electric guitar was invented: in order to compensate for the difficulty in capturing and reproducing the sound of an acoustic guitar in a live setting. This difficulty has remained a significant hurdle for decades now, so many people seem to have grown accustomed to that thin sound, and some artists, particularly Dave Matthews, have done a pretty good job of embracing and making it work for them.

This has also had the unfortunate side effect of leaving plenty of strummers with the impression that it can work for them, too, leading to far too many dreary sounding players, who would solidly benefit from the judicious use of electric guitars, which are so much easier to mix properly in a live setting. However, if those strummers on their Takamines and Ovations* still find themselves unable to overcome their misguided acoustic fetish, then they should give serious thought to how much better and lifelike the acoustic guitar on this album sounds than their inane plinking. Yes, I get that it is hard to overcome feedback issues in a live setting, but if feedback leaves a guitarist compromising their tone to the degree that they are unable to approach the tone found on this popular and widely available album, then I urge them to consider rolling with an electric instead.

Rubin does a fine job of capturing Cash’s voice, too. Wow, does it sound cool when he hits those low notes on Nick Lowe’s “The Beast in Me”, which is one of several inspired selections for covers that Rubin chose here. With choices like that and Cash’s unbelievable talent, Rubin and Cash came pretty close to making a great album here, and, honestly, upon my first listen, I was starting to think that the album was going to blow me away. I had seen the video for “Delia’s Gone” numerous times on MTV when the album was originally released, so I already knew that it was a really good tune, and it gets the album off to a strong start. The next tune “Let the Train Blow the Whistle” is fine as well, and the third song, “The Beast in Me”, as I have already mentioned, works great due to Cash’s standout vocal performance. Then, unfortunately, the album hits a roadblock: Cash seems uninterested throughout much of his own “Drive On”, leading to about as long and boring of a sub-2:30 song from a brilliant artist as I could imagine, and the problems continue on the next groaner, “Why Me Lord?”, too. From there, despite several strong covers and a couple of decent originals, the album never really recovers the momentum that it has lost.

Yes, American Recordings is a pretty good album that helped restore Cash’s career to deserved prominence. Yet, since it is not an album that I ever bothered to listen to until driven to do so because of my participation in this blog based on the Rolling Stone list, I can’t help but judge it within that context, and I have to say that it seems to have earned its spot on the list more for historical and/or sentimental reasons than its artistic merits. Now, historical merit is a critical component of the greatness of many albums on the Rolling Stone list, so, while I can understand why Rolling Stone rated this album so high, it isn’t great enough overall for me to agree with that decision.

*While both of those companies make some excellent instruments, I list them here solely because I often see them in the hands of the worst offenders. I do not mean to knock those brands for the popularity that they have earned by making good instruments that people enjoy playing; it’s not their fault that people don’t bother to dial them in properly.

1 comment:

Eurowags said...

LB, your commentary is spot on when you point out how the album hits a major lull after the 3rd track or so. Like I mention in another post commentary thread, it's not until "Tennessee Stud" does the listener start to see some light.
I like how you defend parts of the album, particularly the use of the acoustic guitar and his voice. As I am pretty ignorant about guitar sounds, your insight helps one get a better appreciation of certain type of playing and use (and even abuse or overuse) of certain musical instruments.
You know, when I hear this album and think of songs like "Hurt" (which is a great track or cover), I get this feeling that starting in the 90s Cash was slowly preparing himself for his own death. Having read one of his autobiographies of this period, I know this is not true (he continued to embrace life and the pleasures of his homelife), but he was in a mode of deep reflection on his life. In other words, he was aware that he was in the twilight of his life.