Friday, 26 April 2013

Chop's CD Roulette - "Unchained" by Johnny Cash

Here's the first of an occasional post relating to the random selection of music from my CD collection. Read the introduction for full details but long story short, by picking a letter from A to K and a number from 1 to 68 you'll select a CD that I'll then play and blog about.

@maffrj selected B37 which corresponded to Unchained by Johnny Cash (1996)

Unchained is the second in the American Recordings series with producer Rick Rubin that revitalised his career and brought his work to a new audience (including me). I owned a Cash compilation but it was this series of albums that caught my attention and encouraged me to explore his catalogue in greater depth.

First track is Rowboat a cover of the Beck song originally on the intriguingly named Stereopathetic Soulmanure. I realise now that as much as I love this version I never got around to digging out Beck's version. Johnny's vocal is deep and rich and it's a great opener. Upbeat and catchy but with a nice country twang from the band that I believe was largely made up of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers.

More of the same follows with Sea of Heartbreak. There's a second voice in this that could be Tom Petty (it is, I just read the cover). It's another smashing tune with great lyrics that befit a song written by Hal David & Paul Hampton. More goodness from the sleeve notes, Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood add acoustic guitar and percussion respectively.

OK, this is where things start to get interesting. Rusty Cage is a cover of a Soundgarden tune which has producer Rick Rubin's imprint all over it. It's a brilliant choice of tune with a deep chugging riff that hints at it's grunge origin whilst retaining the country feel. A dark country blues song.

The One Rose (That's Left in My Heart) is a bit of a come down after Rusty Cage. A Jimmie Rogers tune that's a bit too sentimental for my taste. It's quickly followed by Country Boy, a Cash original from the late fifties, which adds some pace and is a great little song.

Memories Are Made Of This is familiar, probably because of the hit Dean Martin had with it. This is a different arrangement that shakes the song free of any kitsch associations and really brings it to life. It's a little twee in places but Cash's voice is wonderful. At this point in his career he could probably sing the phone directory and make it sound meaningful.

Spiritual was written by Josh Haden for his band Spain, neither of whom I know anything about. It's a lovely track that resonates with Cash's tenor. Some lovely 12-string* guitar twanging brings out the melody. Flea of The Red Hot Chilli Peppers makes an appearance on Bass, though not sure I could tell if I'd not read the sleeve. Cash's religious faith adds gravitas to the words, I've no religious conviction but the raw emotion is plain to hear. It's the perfect lead in to The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea a Carter Family song that was recorded by The Louvin Brothers for their Satan is Real album.

Seems only fair that with them providing the music Cash also cover a Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers tune. Southern Accents is a goody too. Tom resists the urge to provide backing vocals on this and lets Johnny explore the full depth of his range. Which is pretty bloody deep.

Back to back Cash originals next. Mean Eyed Cat is a fast one that it's hard not to love. Meet Me in Heaven is a more sombre affair that I think was a new composition for this album. Cash already writing lyrics in 1996 that ponder death and what may be beyond it.

I Never Picked Cotton is one of favourite tunes on the album. Written by Bobby George and Charles Williams made famous by Roy Clark, there are hints of Cash's own family history. I'm not great at listening to lyrics but Cash is a brilliant story teller and the story unfolds perfectly. You can't help but be drawn in by the words.

The title track now, Unchained was written by singer-songwriter Jude Johnstone but hadn't been previously recorded. Jude did eventually get to recorded it herself on her debut LP in 2002.

I've Been Everywhere is a full on country ho-down as Cash reels off the names of places where he's been. It's a cracking list of American towns with a really tongue twisting lyric. The perfect up moment to end a fabulous record. I've played this a lot over the years and know it pretty well but it's nice to sit down and really listen, I probably don't do that enough. A fine start to this project and a highly recommended album.

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