Johnny Cash
Unchained
(American)
½


Every January, a couple weeks after publishing my "best of the past year" list and setting all things past to rest, there are always one or two albums I belatedly discover that "would have" made my best of the year list...if only Iíd heard them in time. This year, that late discovery turned out to be the new album by "The Man In Black," released in the fall.

Cash's second outing on American Records (an otherwise fairly alternative rock-based label) is really a spiritually moving experience, that anyone with:

A) a love of solid, honest songwriting and singing and

B) a love of country-rock music history should hear.

Cashís voice has weathered the storms of life in amazingly good shape, and any wounds heís endured have only served to make his musical presence stronger. When he sings of a deep troubled past, you can't help but be swayed into rapt attention by his power. And when he lets loose with good ol' Sun Studios piano & guitar style rock 'n' roll, (as on the rollicking "Mean Eyed Cat") you can't help but wax nostalgic for rockís more innocent days.

While his American Records debut three years ago featured an "unplugged" Cash — just the man and his guitar — this time around he has a full band to back him up. And what a band: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers serve as the backbone of Unchained, and there are also guest appearances by Marty Stuart, Flea, Lindsay Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood. It's the cross-fertilization of Cash's classic style with the new breed of rock and country stars that has led to the resurgence in interest in the aging country veteran. Rock producer Rick Rubin helped pair Cash up with both rock musicians and songwriters, without undermining Cash's inimitable, legendary style one bit. You would never guess by listening to it that the slightly hard-edged (for Cash, anyway) "Rusty Cage" is actually a Soundgarden song stripped back to a guitar riff and some taut lyrics. Likewise, Beck's "Rowboat," which opens the album, sounds like a vintage Sun Studio Sessions Cash number, as easy-rambling guitars back the singer crooning "she dug a hole in the bottom of my soul/She don't wanna be my friend no more."

But modern rock isn't Cash's focus, despite these brave forays into the arena. Much of the album is devoted to retooling some of Cash's long-forgotten favorites that were hits in the '50s and '60s. He updates songs made popular by Don Gibson, Hank Snow, Roy Clark and Dean Martin, as well as his wife June Carter Cash. Despite this wide breadth of songwriters and sources, every song sounds like a Cash original, of which there are only three on this album. One of them, "Mean Eyed Cat" is a song Cash never really finished before it was released on his first album. It appears here with a new verse and deceptively vintage piano plucking by Benmont Tench. Another comes from those early sessions as well, but remains essentially unchanged: "Country Boy." The third is a song Cash wrote a year ago for June Carter, and takes its title from the epitaph on the singerís brotherís tombstone: "Meet Me In Heaven."

The high point of the album though comes in Cash's quietly heartfelt reading of Petty's "Southern Accents." The Heartbreakers let Cash's world-weary pipes carry the tune, choosing to augment the vocal only with simple, light doses of organ, piano, tambourine and acoustic guitar.

This is a powerfully "American" album, and it offers a special bonus treat: the liner notes, which take up several pages, are ramblings by Cash, who muses about his past, the recording sessions for this album, the excessive availability of pickles and of his own poor advice: "Thank God Roy Orbison ignored it," Cash writes. "He was a little discouraged by the lack of progress he was making...I said 'Change your name and lower your voice. You sing too high and no one will ever remember Orbison.'

MISCELLANEOUS:


Rhino Records has unveiled a new series of romantic collections in time for Valentineís Day. Compiled entirely by women, the first three volumes are Feel Like Makin' Love: Romantic Power Ballads, Country Lovin': Songs from the Heart, and Soul Serenade: Intimate R&B. The power ballad disc includes hits like Bad Companyís "Feel Like Makiní Love," Scorpions' "Still Loving You," REO's "Canít Fight This Feeling," and Boston's "Amanda." Also included are songs from Dokken, Foreigner, Whitesnake, Cheap Trick, Cinderella, Winger, Bad English and more. The country disc includes Patty Loveless' "Timber, I'm Falling In Love," Restless Heart's "I'll Still Be Love You" and songs from John Michael Montgomery, Randy Travis, Dolly Parton, and Tanya Tucker. The Soul volume includes Percy Sledge's "When A Man Loves a Woman," Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," and Patti Austin and James Ingram's "Baby Come To Me."

Despite listing a bunch of soundtracks last week, I discovered another one lurking in my "to review" pile: the soundtrack to the movie One Fine Day, on Columbia Records features a handful of current artists performing "oldies." The Chiffons' classic frenetic shooby-doo-wop-wop version of the title track appears, as does Natalie Merchantís torchy lounge remake (which sounds nothing like the original except for the words!) The Ad Libs handle "The Boy From New York City," Kenny Loggins offers a quiet, falsetto-endowed "For The First Time," and The Shirelles' classic "Mama Said," turns up. Tina Arena offers the only "modern" sounding song; an upbeat, hand-clappin' hit-quality pop piece called "Love's Funny That Way." Songs from Van Morrison, Shawn Colvin, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and Harry Connick appear, as does an instrumental soundtrack suite from the movieís score by James Newton Howard.