JOHNNY CASH – American VI: Ain’t No Grave (2010 American Recordings)
Seven years after Johnny Cash passed, Rick Rubin released American VI: Ain’t No Grave. It is billed as the “final Johnny Cash studio album”. Listening to it is simply an awesome experience. It’s one of the finest of Johnny’s American Recordings. I think my favourite is American IV: The Man Comes Around, but American VI is a contender.
Beginning with the dark, powerful “Ain’t No Grave”, Johnny is defiant. He does not fear death. “Ain’t No Grave” has more accompaniment than most of the tracks on this album, which are adorned only by the odd piano keys, steel guitar, or rhythm. Johnny’s voice is weak, yet that baritone is still so defiantly powerful. Even in illness, Johnny refused to stop making music, his aching voice a shadow of what it once was. Yet even that aching voice stirs powerful emotions through the music. Only Johnny could sing these songs the way he did.
Mortality is a common theme. Other highlights for this listener included:
“Redemption Day”, a track written by Sheryl Crow and an upbeat number.
Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times”, lush with acoustic guitars.
“I Corinthians 15:55”, Johnny’s sole writing credit, taken from the Bible. Truly an inspiration. Johnny’s faith kept him going in those last days.
“Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream”, a song about a dream of world peace. Maybe Johnny was also imagining the place he thought he’d be after death took him.
“Aloha Oe”, an upbeat Hawiian melody, ending the album with the haunting words, “Someday, we’ll meet again”.
I know Rick Rubin lovingly produced these final six Johnny Cash albums, befriending the man and earning his trust. Knowing that, I trust that Rubin finished these songs the way that Johnny would have wanted them to sound. Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench from the Heartbreakers are among the musicians involved.
I do love what Rubin did with the packaging. A picture of Johnny as a boy on the front, a ghostly Johnny gazing through a window on the back, no song list on the cover. Inside is a booklet with a copy of Johnny’s handwritten lyrics to “I Corinthians 15:55”, a really cool touch. No liner notes. Rubin lets the music speak for itself.
All of the American recordings (which also included the fine box set Cash Unearthed, and 1998’s live VH1 Storytellers with Willie Nelson) will go down in history as some of the most important country recordings of our lifetimes. Personally I cannot think of another artist in any genre who was so prolific in his or her last days. The fact that these final recordings are so diverse, so strong, and so powerful are a testament to the Man in Black.
JOHNNY CASH – American IV: The Man Comes Around (2003 American)
I have published over 300 reviews here at mikeladano.com (use the search button on the top right to look up anything you want). Yet, I still hadn’t got around to Johnny Cash! That’s strange, because Johnny Cash is very special to me.
Everybody “says” they love Johnny Cash. Many of them jumped on board when he died and became “cool” again. Take Dandy, for example, a trend chaser who inked Johnny’s face on his arm a few months after he died. But hey, if you’re on board now, that’s cool. There’s plenty of room for everyone.
Johnny Cash was my first concert. In Canada in the early 1980’s, Johnny had an endorsement deal with Canada Trust, where my dad worked. Their brand new ATM machines were called Johnny Cash machines, and my dad even had some promotional Johnny Cash bills, a cool marketing gimmick. He went to see Johnny, his idol, when Johnny came to town. The first night of a two-nighter, my dad met him. On the second night, he brought me along (I didn’t get to meet him). Johnny modified his original concert opening by saying, “I’m Johnny Cash, 24 hour money machine” (in reference to the ATMs). I still remember June kicking off her shoes!
The Man Comes Around is my favourite of the American Recordings, helmed by Rick Rubin. It was also the last one released in Johnny’s lifetime. It is, all at once, extremely powerful, morose, joyful, and catchy. All filtered through Johnny’s unmistakable baritone, worn and weary but no less strong and expressive. Like other American albums, it is a mixture of originals and covers, oldies and more recent fare.
The most well-known song on American IV was “Hurt”, the Nine Inch Nails cover. It is remarkable by being so different, yet true to the spirit of the original. I prefer Johnny’s take on it to Trent’s, truthfully. “Hurt” is only one of many remarkable covers on this album. Johnny and Fiona Apple tend “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, with quiet mellotron in the background.
My favourite song is Sting’s “I Hung My Head”. I couldn’t believe the credits when I read that (having skipped Sting’s Mercury Falling album). I thought for certain this had to be a new Cash original. Lyrically, I was convinced this tragic tale came from the mind of the Man in Black, but I was wrong. It’s a spellbinding song, painting a clear picture, and Johnny’s delivery is perfect.
“In My Life” is the favourite of Mrs. LeBrain. She’s a huge Beatles fan. We selected this song for the signing of the register at our wedding. I received kudos on the musical selection from Tom Morwood and Jen’s Uncle Rick, who loved the Johnny. While very different from the Beatles version, I think I can safely say I like both equally.
I’m not too keen on the Depeche Mode cover (“Personal Jesus”), but I don’t like Depeche Mode much. I know some who think the cover is brilliant, so we’ll go with that. Johnny and Rubin tranform the song into a dark acoustic stomp.
Other highlights include the classic “Sam Hall”, which Johnny also performed on his 1965 album, Johnny Cash Sings Ballads of the True West. I love Johnny’s energetic delivery on this traditional. We enjoyed this one at the record store, a lot. “Danny Boy” is another from 1965 (Orange Blossom Special) that Johnny takes a second crack at. This time it’s a more intimate affair without the backing vocals. Johnny compensates with his rich storyteller’s voice, each flaw telling a story of its own.
The album closes with “We’ll Meet Again”, the Vera Lynn classic. I always think of Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove) when I hear this song. So for me, I can hear a sly wink in “We’ll Meet Again”, a hint of humour, as if Johnny knew this would be the last song on the last album released in his lifetime.
But it’s not really the last song. On my wishlist is the vinyl edition, which had two bonus tracks: Marty Robbins’ “Big Iron” (another personal favourite) and an exclusive version of “Wichita Lineman”.
My copy of the album came with a bonus DVD. Nothing to get excited about, it’s just the music video for “Hurt”. Granted that’s a great video, but the DVD is less special in 2013 than it was in 2003. Now, everybody Youtubes.
And make no mistake, Meat wrote every word. No messing around from me. Enjoy!
PET SOUNDS– THE BEACH BOYS (1966)
When The Beatles released Rubber Soul in 1965, Brian Wilson heard something that inspired him to try and make his own masterpiece. The result was Pet Sounds, which saw The Beach Boys discard their typical surf-inspired ditties and create an album that will always be a classic. I remember when I first heard this album I was completely blown away that it was a 1966 album. The overall sound of it is so full and rich, and it’s funny how everyone thinks The Beatles main influence for Sgt. Peppers was drug-related, and I am sure it was, but that classic would never have been without this classic album first. Do yourself a favour and re-discover The Beach Boys by checking this out.
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE – QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE (1998)
There are a lot of people that think that the QOTSA album Rated R, is the band’s first release. In all reality it is their third release if you count the Kyuss/Queens of the Stone Age EP. However, it is a shame that this album has been somewhat overlooked. I think it is by far their best album. To gauge just how much I got into this album could never be measured. For years, I stated that this album was my favorite album ever with distortion. Now trust me I realize the exaggeration in that statement (I have since relented) but it doesn’t take away how brilliant I believe this album truly is. This is a true collection of groovy rock songs, so much so that QOTSA could have titled this album exactly that. I have not been a fan of the last few QOTSA albums, and frankly I wish they could harness this approach once again. Check out the included track “Avon”. An absolute air-drumming seminar at its finest!!
ROXY & ELSEWHERE – FRANK ZAPPA & THE MOTHERS (1974)
One of the albums previously on this list, Joe Jackson’s Big World, was a live album containing new material. Considering the content of this particular album, that format was never more impressive or more challenging than Zappa’s album Roxy & Elsewhere. From beginning to end, it’s hard to believe the complexity of what was happening onstage during these recordings. From the colourful vocals of Napoleon Murphy Brock, to the guitar-fueled madness of Zappa himself, this is my personal favorite of all of Zappa’s recordings. Songs like “Pygmy Twilite” and “Village of the Sun” are absolute genius. The concert film of these recordings is STILL in limbo for whatever reason. Included is a clip of the song “Montana”, recorded during these sessions but not included on the album itself.
SCENES FROM A MEMORY-METROPOLIS 2 – DREAM THEATER (1999)
I simply couldn’t do a list like this without including Dream Theater. I like heavy music and I like progressive music. This band combines those two qualities perhaps better than any band ever has, and on this album its done to perfection. This is your classic “concept album” and tells an interesting story that needs to be experienced. But the true experience of this album is that it is a piece of song-writing and musical brilliance. If you have seen Rush’s biopic Beyond The Lighted Stage, you might recognize the now-familiar voice of long-time Rush producer Terry Brown (who also produced the vocals on this album). The album sees John Petrucci and Mike Portnoy at their monster best and requires many listens to truly appreciate. I am not a “Rolling Stone” magazine guy myself, but it does say something that in 2012 they named this album as the Number One all-time progressive album, beating out Rush’s 2112and Yes’s Close to The Edge.
THE ACTION IS GO – FU MANCHU (1997)
This album starts off with a bang, it also ends with a bang and actually this album is just one big resounding rhythmic bang. After a few good, but not great albums (in my opinion), new drummer Brant Bjork was brought into Fu Manchu. This would result in one of the greatest “Stoner-Rock” albums of all time. This is literally the perfect driving album. Sometimes you find yourself emulating driving just sitting and listening to it. You can hear a huge Sabbath influence on this album, at least in the sound of the instruments and the driving low end. Sometimes the vocals can leave a bit to be desired, but it is not really singing in the first place. Almost sounds like a dude talkin’ to himself, which adds to the coolness of this album. One of my favorite albums of the 1990’s indeed.
WELCOME TO SKY VALLEY – KYUSS (1994)
Somewhere around early 1995, I walked into a Sunrise Records where Tom (Tom has been mentioned many times in Mike’s blogs) was working. At this point Tom and I only really knew each other from local concerts we would run into each other at. The second I walked in he begged me to check out this Kyuss album on the listening station. I remember the look on his face when I didn’t instantly “get it”. Years later I had to bow to him and thank him for trying to open my eyes earlier. No one knows how to set a mood quite like Kyuss. The last album listed was Brant Bjork’s first album with Fu Manchu. This album is the last Kyuss album featuring Brant Bjork on drums. No coincidence here. This man knows how to wash songs with a subtle intensity. Check out the song “Demon Cleaner” sometime, with Josh Homme singing and see how Queens of the Stone Age were born. This album has been listed as a major influence for many of the heavy metal greats of the day.
WHALE MUSIC – THE RHEOSTATICS (1994)
The Rheostatics are definitely one of my favorite bands of all time, and the artist I have seen live the most in my life. Any band that calls their first album Greatest Hits obviously has a good sense of humour. There really is no album that quite captures “Canadiana” quite like Whale Music. Not to be confused with the later-released official soundtrack of the same name, this album ranges from the sweet to the insane. Take the song “Queer” for example. “Well the screen door is still broken, since you kicked your Kodiaks through it” and “I scored a hat trick on the team that called you a fuckin’ queer”, are lyrics that paint a Canadian portrait of everyday life. I love this album and frequently re-visit it only to find it gets better with age. Notable appearances on this album are Neil Peart on a song called “Guns” and The Barenaked Ladies (credited as The Scarborough Naked Youth Choir). Included here is the amazing opening track. Check it out eh ….
WHITE PEPPER – WEEN (2000)
Simply put, this is my favorite “Pop” album of all time. I am not a Ween fan per se. I cannot say I have actually connected strongly with any of their other albums. But when this album was introduced to me, it grabbed a hold of me and it will never let go. First of all, the sound on this album is absolutely wonderful. Second of all, the melodies on this album (with sprinkles of Ween weirdness of course) are something very reminiscent of The Beatles. I have always tagged this album as their “Beatles tribute”, and it was pointed out to me by a friend that “The White Album? Sgt. Peppers? White Pepper?”. Now I have not read that in fact that is what the name truly means, but I think that is a very good guess. I have played this album for a few musician friends of mine and the result is pretty much the same across the board. White Pepper simply “hooks” you in, it is that simple. Check out the Trey Parker and Matt Stone directed video for “Even If You Don’t” included here.
UNCHAINED – JOHNNY CASH (1996)
I was working at the “Record Store Chain” Ladano blogs about when I was first introduced to this album. It was instantly a revelation of what I do actually like about Country Music, and was the reason I became a fan of the older-style albums of the genre. Not enough can be said about the genius of Rick Rubin. The man who changed the careers of Slayer, The Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers got a hold of Johnny Cash and re-introduced him as the icon he always was. Hiring Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers as the backing band for the second American Recordings Johnny Cash release was a stroke of brilliance. The opening track “Rowboat” sees Cash cover a Beck song and make it his own. “Sea of Heartbreak” is a melodic ass-kicker. Everyone by now knows of the genius cover of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage”, so good in fact that for a long period of time Chris Cornell refused to play it live stating “It’s not our song anymore. It’s Johnny’s now”. No album of this genre has ever sounded bigger, if not any genre. A must have album.
VS. – PEARL JAM (1993)
This album had to be included on this list. I understand that everyone looks at Pearl Jam’s first album as this massive crowning achievement, but frankly I didn’t get it then and I really still don’t. Their second album I think is the best album of their career and probably my favorite “Grunge” album ever. Every song on this album is a classic to me and it does seem weird to call an album that was a Number One album on Billboard for five weeks straight “underrated”. But I truly do feel this album gets overlooked and that’s a shame. I find Ten to be kind of boring and redundant to be honest. This album is still fresh to me. I hope when it’s all said and done that this album is what truly defines them.
ZZ TOP – La Futura (2012 Best Buy edition, 2 bonus tracks, American Recordings)
Unfortunately I didn’t get this album until January of 2013. As such, it didn’t make my Top Five of 2012 list. If I had got it sooner, would it have made the list? Probably. It did make lots of lists. It made Every Record’s top 10 of 2012, and regular LeBrain reader Deke’s list for example.
I love this album. I’ve played it every day since I got it! From mournful ZZ blues (“Over You”) to skunky funky ZZ blues (“I Gotsta Get Paid”) to trademark anthemic ZZ rock (“Flyin’ High”), this album has pretty much everything I love from ZZ Top!
I first heard the single, the aforementioned “I Gotsta Get Paid” (a rewrite of a rap song called “25 Lighters” by somebody named DJ DMD) on the Mandy Grant Show, on 107.5 Dave FM. I fell for it immediately, but I was wary of buying the album at first. After all, most ZZ discs since Eliminator and even Afterburner didn’t do too much for me, even though they all have tunes worth putting on a road tape. Maybe the difference is that, on La Futura, ZZ Top are working with Rick Rubin? Or maybe it’s that they haven’t recorded a studio album in almost a decade? I don’t know, except to say that ZZ Top absolutely nail it on La Futura.
The overall sound is both slick and dirty at once, a balance that they haven’t always hit in the past. Frank Beard’s drums sound absolutely perfect, the way you want a real drum kit to sound, no goofy samples here! Of course, the Reverend Billy F. Gibbons’ guitars are always greasy goodness, and full of dirty soul. What sets this album apart is a rediscovered ability to write memorable, catchy blues rock songs. “I Don’t Wanna Lose, Lose, You” is a perfect example of the kind of rock tune that ZZ Top are known for, groovy and instantly memorable. “Chartreuse” and “Consumption” are the same, just awesomely great Top tunes as memorable as some of their best from the days of yore. “It’s Too Easy Mañana” is a perfectly bluesy mess of guitars, bass and drums, while “Big Shiny Nine” is another trademark upbeat Top rocker.
My favourite song, that I keep coming back to, and can’t get out of my head, is “Flyin’ High”. It’s just an awesome song, melodic as hell, and worthy of single status. That’s my pick for second single right there. What a riff, what a song! Back in ’83, this would have been a smash hit.
I shelled out for the US Best Buy edition, which has two bonus tracks. Shipping and taxes all-in, I paid $35 for “Threshold of a Breakdown” and “Drive By Lover”. Both are great tunes, but it’s especially worth having “Drive By Lover” because it’s the only song on which bassist Dusty Hill takes the lead vocal. I’ve always been a fan of bands that have two lead singers, and I’ve always liked Dusty’s voice.
My only beef is the packaging. What you see is what you get: A simple cardboard case, no booklet. You get liner notes but no lyrics or anything else particularly special for buying a physical edition. Too bad.
Note: The first four tracks were previous released on the iTunes only Texicali EP. But if you prefer physical product, like I do, this is a no-brainer way to go!