Thursday, January 31, 2013

Air That Ain't Been Breathed Before

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album(s) replay: Johnny Cash, Greatest Hits, Vols. 1-2. Many of the recording artists I revere didn't make great records, or at least not album-length statements that hold together as works unto themselves, and so best-of collections have often been my introduction. They're how I came to know and love everyone from Peggy Lee to Hank Williams, from Spike Jones to Sly Stone. Again, Aron's Records' used bins are where I stumbled on these mixed-bag Cash compilations, actually in reverse order, which I don't recommend if you're looking for the top-drawer material--apart from "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Sunday Morning Coming Down," Vol. 2 is heavy on novelties and/or covers, while Vol. 1, though not without its shtick and kitsch, contains several pillars of the catalogue ("Jackson," "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire").

Of course, even petty Cash has its value, and what comes through even the lesser material is the man's large, earnest, unfakeable presence. Post-Rick Rubin, we're used to hearing his voice as a stately, wizened rasp, but on the early records its sound is rich, full, almost embarrassingly orotund. We're also used to hearing stark guitar accompaniment as his ideal backdrop, but that sound can often pale next to the vintage Cash-Carter pop-abilly assault, mariachi brass and backup singers and all.

And while his best songs are strong and square as monuments--though admittedly some are closer in scale to cigar-store Indians than to, say, the Lincoln Memorial--mid- to late '60s Cash didn't yet have the oracular gravitas he later acquired (earned, to be fair). I'm glad, in a way, that the first thing I heard him do was to barely sight-read through Shel Silverstein's bumptious "A Boy Named Sue." To hear him laugh and lust and sweat and strain is to realize that the vaunted Man in Black was first and foremost just a man

Chris Wells and, did you see this?
Rob Weinert-Kendt Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps...but this is an exception.
David Tobocman He is the one revered artist I never got. His voice sounds like Tennessee Ernie Ford to me and he has no pocket (see I've Been Everywhere). Plus there's all those kitsch songs. Boy Named Sue, Ring of Fire, etc. Those low notes sound gimmicky to me, not soulful. Sorry to spoil the party : (
Rob Weinert-Kendt @David, if you're lumping the desperate cry of "Ring of Fire" with his kitsch, then we'll just have to agree to disagree. (And can you really dismiss the guy who wrote "Folsom Prison Blues"?) He may be overrated, particularly by latter-day fans, but if I'm paying tribute to formative artists, I have to give due props:
Adam Liston (from a latter-day fan) Too much of the music I really like is derivative of Johnny Cash not to give him his due; I could say the same thing for Dylan as well.
David Tobocman Never even noticed the lyric to Ring of Fire being sincere, the faux-Mariachi kitsch of the music is so prominent. Seriously, this is not a novelty song? Always thought it was. Also never understood Folsom Prison Blues to be any more sincere than anything by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Maybe I'm not giving Tennessee his due either.
Jason Benjamin Totally agree with David's comment. I like Cash's song selections and swagger, but the man was tone deaf. 1-2 songs are all I can take in one listening. "Cigar-store Indians" nails it.
Rob Weinert-Kendt @David, I guess you have to hear him sing it *at* Folsom Prison.
David Tobocman I'm gonna listen to some Cash today as penance for crashing the thread. I'll keep an ear open.
Rob Weinert-Kendt @David, you're not crashing anything. Dissent is welcome and nothing is sacred, not even sacred music.
David Tobocman Nope. Didn't take. I tried.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Next, let's fight about Leonard Cohen, another essential but overrated bass/baritone with a passing relationship to pitch.
David Tobocman Now you're talking. And Rob, your song is better than the source material, if you ask me.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Thanks, David...but that song literally wouldn't have been written, nor would I have thought it worth learning to pluck the bass notes on my Martin that distinctive country way, without the Cash incentive.
David Tobocman I'm not arguing. I'm just saying I never "got" this artist. He's about the only major major American artist I never really understood the value of beyond, as it's been put in this thread, as a cigar store indian. Kitsch value, but I'm consistently unmoved by kitsch. Don't particularly like Warhol either, for instance.

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