Love God Murder
(Columbia / American / Legacy)
Johnny Cash will always be known as "the man in black," and that somber persona has spawned a truly amazing output over the past half century, centered on his "black" songs of painful Love ("I Walk The Line,""I Still Miss Someone"and "Ring of Fire") his blacker songs of regretful Murder ("Folsom Prison Blues,""Deliaís Gone,""Donít Take Your Guns To Town") and his mournful cries of a man in the religious wilderness crying out to God ("Why Me Lord,""Swing Low, Sweet Chariot""Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)".
Now Columbia/Legacy has released Love God Murder, a 48-song box set collecting those songs, three songs previously unreleased in the U.S. and many more and arranged them by theme — one CDcovers Love, one Murder and one God. (Each of the CDs can also be bought individually, if desired.) All of the tracks were selected by Cash himself, who provides short introductory essays to each disc, each of which also includes a guest essay (the guests are June Carter Cash, Bono and Quentin Tarantino). The only complaint I can find about the song selection is the omission of my personal favorite Cash song, "A Boy Named Sue."
As Bono writes for the God album, "Johnny Cash doesnít sing to the damned, he sings with the damned." Cash has always been a voice of the people, a strong presence who gives the listener strength, regardless of his songís subject. His power comes both from his rugged granite looks and from that signature deep voice that instantly imparts the feeling that heís been there before you, to depths lower than you will ever be forced to go.
If you donít own a selection of Cashís influential and inspirational catalogue on CD, buy this box!
Where did this bit of musical magic come from?
From the opening strumming guitar and piano chords of the beautifully built "Smile" to the closing distortion-rich jam of "Baby, Baby, Baby," The Jayhawks, with their sixth album, have created a masterwork of pure American pop-rock with a touch of British invasion power. A glorious paeon to heartland strumming and coastal harmonies, Smile sounds like a lost classic from the days of the ascension of the singer-songwriter. Its titletrack owes a lot to Beatle George Harrisonís warm vocal and guitar tones of the mid-to-late Ď70s, and the current hit single, "Iím Gonna Make You Love Me," could have been a lost song from a Travelling Wilburys album (which featured Harrison with Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty. Itís an airy, easy strumming hymn full of sunshine and promises, that rings true with any boy whoís chased a girl: "Iíll never be all you want me to/but thatís all right/ Iím gonna make you love me/Iím gonna dry your tears/and weíre gonna stay together for a million years."
The Jayhawks have been criticsí darlings ever since their first alternative country song emerged from their Minneapolis home in the mid-í80s. But itís taken a handful of albums and a major lineup shakeup (the departure of co-founder Mark Olson in 1995) to bring the band out of hallowed obscurity and into the spotlight of Top 40 radio rotation.
In the interim, Gary Louris has evolved into a truly formidable songwriter; every track on Smile is a polished gem, with influences ranging from those Travelling Wilburys singalongs to celebratory classic country vibes on songs like "A Break In The Clouds," which has a pedal steel guitar tucked into an anthemic harmonized chorus in which Louris praises "Every time that I see your face/Itís like cool cool water running down my back."
There are upbeat funky rhythms (and Harrison-esque vocals)on "Queen of the World," perfect folk-pop hymn in the call and response verses and warm harmonies of "Better Days," a Moody Blues meets Gerry Rafferty vibe in "(In My)Wildest Dreams" and haunting ghost town background "ooooh-ooo"s on "What Led Me To This Town." On "Life Floats By" the band turns up the crunch factor for a pounding rock road story and drummer Tim OíReagan steps up to the mic to change the sound a bit for the brooding "Pretty Thing." It all seems to lead to the sound of the sun and blue sky in a lilting whistle at the end of "Mr. Wilson," a dark character study backed by perfect summer day music that asks obliquely, "Canít you see my guardian angel/looking over me."
An angel has delivered this album from folk-rock-pop heaven. Donít miss this musical manna.