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Review: Johnny Cash, Personal File

5.0

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Johnny Cash, Personal File

By 1994, Johnny Cash’s status as an icon of not only country music but of American popular culture was already firmly secure, the songs from his unrivaled creative peak in the 1960s defining country’s “Golden Era” even as the content and form of those songs challenged the genre’s clean-cut mainstream conventions, and his larger-than-life image as The Man in Black forever changing the way that the most compelling recording artists—those who truly earn the term—craft a public persona that’s as inseparable from their music as is their voice. His legacy—challenged within the genre only by Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, and Dolly Parton, but extending farther beyond the genre’s borders than any other—had made him a legend, but what Cash had not been for decades was commercially or artistically relevant. Most legends, faced with such prospects, either fade gradually from public view or continue to release albums that undermine their reputations and leave new generations of would-be fans confused.

But Cash, his persona having been founded on defying the expectations at every turn, did no such thing. Instead, he teamed with producer Rick Rubin and released American Recordings, a landmark album that stands as the single most important, most daring country album released in the 1990s. The album not only made Cash cool among Nirvana’s fanbase—the video for “Delia’s Gone” even turned up on Beavis & Butthead—but it completely changed the way that country music’s veterans are allowed to make music. American Recordings paved the way for artists like Lynn (whose Van Lear Rose certainly holds its own in the company of American Recordings), Haggard, Parton, and George Jones, to look beyond the confines of Music Row (Haggard, for instance, released his excellent If I Could Only Fly on punk label Epitaph) for the opportunity to record new material that rivals or often surpasses their earlier work rather than retire to the Grand Ole Opry stage to sing their past hits for an increasingly disinterested audience. Though the subsequent albums in the American Recordings series rapidly declined in quality, succumbing to poor choices of cover songs and guest artists as much as to Cash’s failing health, the first album was and still is powerful enough to recontextualize Johnny Cash’s career.

Rubin’s role in producing the album was, by his standards, relatively minimalist. He simply gave Cash an acoustic guitar and a microphone and more or less got the hell out of the way. At the time, the stripped-down aesthetic seemed revelatory, even genius. Released simultaneously with Rubin’s horrifying shit-storm of an album from The Dixie Chicks, Johnny Cash’s Personal File immediately casts doubt on the genius of American Recordings’ production. With the bulk of its 49 tracks recorded by Cash himself at his home studio in 1973, armed only with an acoustic guitar and his baritone at the absolute height of its power, Personal File shows that Cash had been using an intimate, spare setting for more than two decades before he and Rubin launched the second phase of his career. This in no way diminishes the power of American Recordings or makes its production any less important to its success. Instead, Personal File merely adds another level of postmodern complexity to Cash’s artistic mythology, making his series of collaborations with Rubin seem somehow like an unavoidable path, one that blurs the line between the singer’s private and public lives.

Devastating as his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” may have been, Cash has rarely sounded as accessible as does on Personal File. Compiled by Gregg Geller (who also compiled the box set Johnny Cash: The Legend), the tracks are divided onto two discs. The first set consists of songs—many of them lesser-known public domain folk songs, but also including several originals by Cash and covers of The Louvin Brothers and Kris Kristofferson, among other major songwriters—that explore the importance of family. Most interestingly, it’s a collection that connects the use of outsized storytelling (in songs like “Saginaw, Michigan” and “When It’s Springtime In Alaska (It’s Forty Below)” and in Robert W. Service’s 1907 poem, “The Cremation Of Sam McGee”) in building an identity with the use of more direct and more honest emotional expression (the disc closes with an exceptional version of step-daughter Carlene Carter’s “It Takes One To Know Me”) to build the relationships that form a family. The album recognizes the brutality of both Cash and the country genre’s most difficult material—what with the shooting a man in Reno and all—and finds an exceedingly smart, self-aware way to reconcile it with the sensitivity of a loving husband and father.

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The second disc underwhelms in direct comparison to the first, but to precious little else. A collection of gospel numbers (standards of Southern gospel, primarily, but with a few originals mixed in), it’s a testament to the depth of Cash’s religious conviction, without the Billy Graham slideshow that Cash projected at his concerts during the 1970s. One of the Cash originals, “No Earthly Good,” actually plays as a more cogent attack on the current Evangelical climate than does anything on The Dixie Chicks’ lite-rock hissyfit, and “If Jesus Ever Loved A Woman” suggests that someone, though the writer is unknown, cracked The Da Vinci Code long before Dan Brown. As a reminder that religion is, above all, intended to inspire intensely personal reflection, the second disc makes for a great listen—there’s a genuine warmth to Cash’s delivery—though daughter Rosanne tackled more complicated issues on her extraordinary Black Cadillac earlier this year.

Invaluable as a historical document, Personal File ultimately stands as a captivating portrait of Cash at his most vital, recording in a style and setting that honors the profound personal significance of songs that nonetheless expand upon his artistic vision. It’s a vision that, at this point, seems boundless, given that even a posthumously released collection can have career-spanning implications for someone who has already been canonized. And with the fifth album in the American Recordings series still on the way, it’s still entirely possible, in spite of Rubin’s recent output, that Cash’s greatness will only continue to grow. For now, words like “legend” and “icon” don’t do justice to the Johnny Cash heard on Personal File.

Label: Legacy Release Date: May 22, 2006 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Dandy Warhols’s Why You So Crazy Is Eclectic but Unmemorable

Neither the album’s eclecticism nor its polish can make up for its lack of memorable songs.

2.5

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Why You So Crazy

The music video for “Be Alright,” the lead single from the Dandy Warhols’s Why You So Crazy, takes the viewer on an interactive 360-degree tour of the Odditorium, a city block-sized building in Portland that was purchased by the band in 2002 in order to serve as their headquarters and recording studio. On one level, it’s clever viral marketing, as the Odditorium is a commercial space, with booking information available online and a public-facing wine bar in the corner. But more importantly, it’s also a revealing glimpse at the cloistered conditions that have produced the last 15 years of the Dandys’s increasingly insular music.

Why You So Crazy unfolds in what is clearly meant to be a dizzying array of styles: from the 1930s Hollywood gloss of opening track “Fred N Ginger” (complete with an artificial 78 r.p.m. vinyl crackle), to the campfire gospel of “Sins Are Forgiven,” to the warped synth-pop of “To the Church.” Minute production details abound throughout: a stray melodica amid the tightly coiled electro of “Terraform”; a spectral, high-pitched piano line floating above the churning guitars of “Be Alright”; a general cacophony of Eno-esque electronic gurgles on the country pastiches “Highlife” and “Motor City Steel.” In short, the album sounds exactly like the product of a band with their own personal recording complex at their disposal and only the most nominal commercial pressures to fulfill.

Unfortunately, neither Why You So Crazy’s eclecticism nor its polish can make up for its lack of memorable songs. For all their stylistic diversity, most of the tracks here ride a single musical hook, like the metronomic bassline that opens “Thee Elegant Bum,” until they’ve reached an ostensibly acceptable length. It’s to the Dandys’s credit that their definition of acceptable song lengths no longer extends to the seven-, nine-, and 12-minute dirges that dominate 2005’s Odditorium, or Warlords of Mars, the album that not coincidentally put an end to their short-lived major label phase. But this is cold comfort when the four-and-a-half minutes of undulating synthesizer and droning guitar feedback that comprise “Next Thing I Know” seems to stretch into a small eternity.

Even frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor, not exactly a high-energy singer in the first place, seems to sleepwalk through much of the album—an impression enhanced when keyboardist Zia McCabe takes the lead for “Highlife.” Not only does McCabe’s Dolly Parton-ish chirp provide a welcome respite from Taylor-Taylor’s laconic drawl, but it makes for an instructive comparison with his blasé performance on the stylistically similar “Motor City Steel.” Neither song does much with the country genre besides wallow in its clichés, but while McCabe commits to her performance, Taylor-Taylor remains distant, exaggerating his pronunciation of Paris’s “Charlie DO-gal” airport as if he’s afraid of being taken too seriously. Similarly cloying is “Small Town Girls,” a paean to provincial womanizing that would feel trite had it been recorded when Taylor-Taylor was 21, let alone his current age of 51.

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Of course, aesthetic distance isn’t necessarily a sin. Just ask Bryan Ferry and Mick Jagger, to name two of the Dandys’s more obvious influences. Nor, for that matter, is self-indulgence without its artistic virtues. Jack White—another survivor of the early-2000s alt-rock scene with his own recording complex (two of them, in fact)—released an album last year that Slant’s own Jeremy Winograd described as “at times close to unlistenable,” but at least it provided the creative spark White seemed to be looking for. The Dandy Warhols, by contrast, just seem to be treading water: releasing an album because they can and, with 2019 marking their 25th anniversary as a band, because they think they should. And while there are no wrong reasons to make music, there may be no reason less compelling than obligation.

Release Date: January 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Cherry Glazerr’s Stuffed & Ready Rages Against a Hostile World

The L.A. trio’s third album is a cathartic expression of estrangement in a cruel world.

4

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Stuffed & Ready

Clementine Creevy has always had a playful streak. At 15, she recorded her first songs under the name ClemButt, and her current outfit, the Los Angeles trio Cherry Glazerr, gained notoriety for a spaced-out, miniature ode to grilled cheese on their 2013 EP Papa Cremp. With Stuffed & Ready, Creevy’s signature irreverence has been transposed into scathing exasperation. The album rages against a hostile, misogynistic world, and then directs its venom inward.

That rage becomes the operating principle of Stuffed & Ready, which is Cherry Glazerr’s most mature and complex album to date. The opening track, “Ohio,” is a barometer for the ensuing ferocity, as a brief, lo-fi prelude crumbles into propulsive guitar noise. The music video for lead single “Daddi,” in which a solitary orange humanoid navigates a turbulent sea of blue creatures, captures the sense of alienation, confusion, and self-abasement that permeates the album. “Who should I fuck, Daddy? Is it you?” Creevy sneers in her characteristic falsetto. Her lyrics often vacillate between affirmation and uncertainty, probing for empowerment in a world that consistently renders her existence invalid. On “Self Explained,” she confesses, “I don’t want people to know how much time I spend alone.”

Under the direction of Carlos de la Garza, who also produced 2017’s Apocalipstick, Stuffed & Ready is Cherry Glazerr’s most sonically sophisticated effort yet. Musically, “Stupid Fish” is a gripping mash-up of the Smiths and early Sleater-Kinney, with sulking distortion interspersed with melodic bursts of Johnny-Marr-inspired guitar play. “Juicy Socks,” perhaps the album’s one moment of breathing room, finds Creevy playfully quipping over a shimmering guitar and florid bassline, “I don’t want nobody hurt/But I made an exception with him/I’m so lucky I can breathe/When the others cannot swim.”

Stuffed & Ready’s fiery denouement, “Distressor,” oscillates from an arpeggiated guitar and rolling drumbeat to a headbanging refrain. “The only faces I can see/Are the faces I pushed away from me/So I can just be,” Creevy wails, repeating the word “be” like a mantra. The album isn’t always hopeful, but it isn’t hopeless either, as it consistently provides a cathartic release for Creevy’s fury.

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Label: Secretly Canadian Release Date: February 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated

Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.

3.5

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Guster, Look Alive

Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.

Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.

On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.

Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.

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For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.

Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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