|Posted by BigBlackHatMan on August 30, 2012 at 9:45 AM|
Country Sounds: Johnny Cash’s American Recordings II Unchained
After Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash had great critical success with their first album, it was only natural that they would collaborate again. In 1996, the duo would create something different from the first album. Where American Recordings was largely an acoustic album with a couple of live recordings, the second effort receives a much more complete studio effort. This album is just as eclectic as the first with music coming from many genres, but all receiving Cash’s take on them.
One thing that I feel I have to address here is that Cash’s voice certainly was not as strong as it had been earlier in his career. As the American Recordings went forward, Cash’s voice becomes more cracked and aged, but remains sharp in spite of this. The first two albums of the series do show his weakening and more gravelly voice, but it is not as obvious at first. I personally do not mind the age in his voice. It works with the sadder and slower pace of the albums compared with earlier points in his career.
The background players are an interesting collection of people as well. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers backed up Cash for large sections with vocals and instrumental. Cash’s former son-in-law Marty Stuart also added his talents. Mick Fleetwood also shows up. I think this says something about Cash that such well-known solo artists would work to simply play in the background for him. He was that kind of transcendent in the history of music. With that said, let’s dive into Unchained.
The album opens with a song written by Beck. You heard that right. The first song on a Johnny Cash album was originally written and performed by the pseudo-folk singer Beck. Cash claimed that he heard the song and felt it was something he could have written during his strange period in the 1960s. “Rowboat,” like many Beck songs, does not really have a central narrative and seems like a random assortment of thoughts. It is a break-up song, loosely defined. The song is a good start and is actually fairly upbeat with some strange imagery throughout. It really starts out announcing that this album will be what it is, and the listener should be prepared for anything.
The second song moves toward a more traditional country song with “Sea of Heartbreak,” which originally was a hit for Don Gibson. Gibson may not be well-known today, but he had a nice run of popularity in the mid-60s with some tragic love songs that leaned toward the pop country sound. Despite the theme of this song being lost love, it actually has a quick and fun pace. It is kind of a toe tapper. Cash’s take on the song seems like he is actually having a good time with the song despite the sad theme. It works well being similar to “Rowboat” in how it works, but being different enough to keep the listener interested.
The third track moves back toward rock’ n’ roll roots. “Rusty Cage” was originally written and recorded by the band Soundgarden. As one would expect, Cash’s version is considerably different from the original, but I admit to liking his better. (I know how shocked everyone is by this statement.) It is a defiant and independent song in congruence with much of Cash’s work over the years. The song has a lot of illusions in it and is open to a certain number of interpretations, so people can take what they want out of it.
Track four continues the rotation in the early part of this album by returning to a very traditional country song. “The One Rose (That’s Left in My Heart)” was first sung by Jimmie Rodgers, the father of modern country music who began his career in 1929. It has been performed several times since then. With so much history, it is not surprising that Cash would take his crack at it. He long has had a reverence for country music and has played the classics throughout his career. This rendition has that same reverence and does a nice job of bringing this song to the public eye once more.
The fifth track is the first Cash original on the album and one that is almost as classic as the last track. “Country Boy” was recorded for Johnny Cash’s very first album, With His Hot and Blue Guitar. Supposedly, it was the first song Cash ever wrote. In the movie Walk the Line, he is portrayed singing pieces of the song as a young man. The version may be the fastest version he ever did and is a really fun piece after the first four songs having sad and defiant themes.
Track six was first made popular by Dean Martin and The Easy Riders. “Memories Are Made of This” has been done several times since Martin did the first major version. Cash’s version is as different from Martin’s as their two styles are different. Cash does it without backup singers like Martin and gives it a more solemn feel despite this being a song of happy love. I like the song, but there really is not too much to say about it.
The seventh track moves back towards rock roots with Spain’s “Spiritual.” This song was only a year old when Johnny Cash elected to record his own version of it for Unchained. This is a really mournful song for the album. It is a painful and pleading song directed toward Jesus to not die alone. The lyrics are few despite it being a somewhat lengthy song that depends on a solid and repetitive rhythm that is intriguing. The song largely depends on the passion of the singer, and Cash has based much of his music on his ability to create that. Honestly, I could easily listen to the original version or Cash’s version as they are both really good. On the whole, I would say this is just an underrated song that too few people know about.
The eighth track harkens to Cash’s ties with the Carter family through his marriage to June and tours with Maybelle and family. “Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea” was written by the Carters and first made popular by The Louvin Brothers. It is a simple narrative about a drunk who fails to reach his mother’s deathbed in time. Cash sings it at a solid tempo and gives a good impression here, but it is nothing special when compared to some of the better tracks on the album.
Track nine was written and performed by Tom Petty, who was backing up on the album as I mentioned earlier. “Southern Accents” may not be one Petty’s more popular singles, but the inclusion shows Cash respecting his fellow artist by using the song that is also applicable to his own background. If you are Southern and proud, it is a near perfect song as it does not use any disparaging stereotypes to make its points. It sort of misses the mark with me, but in my defense, I am not Southern.
Track ten is another Cash classic. “Mean Eyed Cat” was first recorded for Johnny Cash’s legendary 1960 album Sings Hank Williams. The title of the album is a little misleading as only the first four tracks were Hank Williams songs, though a re-release in 2003 had a few more Williams’ tracks on it. This song actually evolved a little over Cash’s career. It has a narrative about a woman leaving her man in frustration, and some of the early versions had him simply letting her go. However, by 1996, the singer was running down and bringing back his woman. That was actually the first version of it, and it is kind of nice Cash went back to the happier ending for the song.
The eleventh track is another Cash original, “Meet Me in Heaven.” Unlike his other songs, this one had not previously appeared on another album, so Cash was treating his longtime fans to something here. The song tells a basic story about a couple who feels they will not be separated even by death. It has a nice religious and love theme to it. This is a fun song that leads into final three tracks which are a brilliant wrap to the album.
The twelfth track comes from the classic picking of Roy Clark. He did not pen the song, but “I Never Picked Cotton” was one of his fun hits. The song tells a story of a sharecropper in Oklahoma who cannot stand to grow up in the same stagnant manner as his family, so he turns to crime as soon as he is old enough to escape. It leads the character to lead a more dynamic and interesting life, but also leads to his being hung for a murder he committed. Despite this, the song is mostly upbeat and fun. It really fits in to Johnny Cash’s lexicon as a song about the harsh realities of being poor and the limited options of it.
Track thirteen is the title track of the album. “Unchained” was written by Jude Johnstone, a singer/songwriter who has actually been very successful over the years for other artists. Her singing career has never really taken off in the same way, however, so she may not be that well known. “Unchained” is a solemn and pleading song. It deals with death and the frustrations of life. Cash’s big and dramatic voice gives this song real power. It is short at about two and half minutes which is unusual for these ballad type songs. Cash is at his best here though and really gives the listener something to feel from him.
The fourteenth and final track is a piece of classic country, “I’ve Been Everywhere.” The song was originally recorded by an Australian artist named Lucky Starr and made popular in the United States by Hank Snow. The song is a tongue twister that names several towns and places extremely quickly. Cash had actually done this song live over the years, but this was his first time he did it on an album. It is a fun song to wrap up the album and a good challenge to attempt singing along with.
In my opinion, Unchained may be the best studio album ever recorded by Johnny Cash. That is up for debate as there are several to choose from. (The previously mentioned Sings Hank Williams could be a candidate.) This album is extremely complete though. Every track adds something, is solid, and comes from many different backgrounds. Cash also still had a fairly strong voice at this point. Though I do not think the cracking that will appear on the later albums was too harmful to the quality, it is nice to hear Cash sounding like his classic self. This album is a must for any fan of Johnny Cash.
Well, I hope everyone can appreciate how much I enjoy this. The American Recordings series would stay strong, but never quite reach this pinnacle again. Next time, I will discuss American Recordings III: Solitary Man. So, Happy Trails and Watch Out For Those Rough Patches.