Great Album Reviews: Unearthed (Johnny Cash)

Album: Unearthed
Artist: Johnny Cash
Genre: Country, Alt-Country, Acoustic
Year: 2003

Johnny Cash told it like it was and didn’t mess around, so I’ll get to the point: the 5-disc Unearthed boxed set is an epic statement that in many ways sums up Johnny Cash.  If you don’t have it, and you know who Johnny Cash was, you should probably go buy it. These days, it’s only available as a download, but that’s cool.

Without this collection, I wouldn’t be playing the music I’m playing now. I got it, and felt I immediately had to learn about half the songs on the first and third discs. Focusing like that on learning guitar music changed me from a drummer who knew a few chords and maybe wrote a song every couple of years, and into a guitarist who writes songs.

I don’t think we realized when listening to the American albums produced by Rick Rubin after Columbia Records dropped Cash that what we were hearing was just a sliver of light visible through a half-opened door. Unearthed was what lay in the room beyond.

As country music changed, Columbia pushed Cash toward a bigger sound, with string arrangements and horn sections, and a production style that Rick Rubin then came along and stripped away. Johnny Cash was a storyteller with what’s been called the voice of a Biblical prophet, and anything that got in the way of that voice telling the stories it wanted to tell, had to go. This gave rise to American Recordings, Unchained, Solitary Man, and The Man Comes Around. Not included on those albums were the songs that would make up the four essential discs of Unearthed. The songs on Disc 5 were culled from the official albums.

Each disc is itself a masterpiece, and of disc 4, My Mother’s Hymn Book (later released as a stand-alone album), Cash himself said, “You asked me to pick my favorite album I’ve ever made and this is it, My Mother’s Hymn Book. On that album I nailed it. That was me. Me and the guitar, and that’s all there was in it and all there was to it. I’m so glad that I got that done.”

I could write about the Kristofferson songs he covers, or the new takes on old songs that were originally over-produced, or the duets, but what else do you need beyond that quote?

So thanks, Johnny. And thanks Rick Rubin for the vision that made this collection, and all of the American releases a reality.

Great Album Reviews: Beautiful Maladies (Tom Waits)

Album: Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years
Artist: Tom Waits
Genre: Folk, Singer/Songwriter, Claptrap
Year: 1998

In honor of Tom Waits’ new album Bad as Me, which comes out today, I thought it’d be a good time to look back at an earlier phase of his career.

In the last few years, Tom Waits has somehow emerged as a revered national treasure.  I say “somehow” not because this is undeserved (It is. It definitely is.), but because he’s still doing the same thing he’s been doing since about 1988, in the same way, but suddenly his prominence in pop culture and the general public awareness has exploded.  So you have heard of Tom Waits, but if you haven’t ever listened to him, a back catalog reaching back over the last thirty years makes the proper point of entry a little hazy.  If one wanted to explore Tom Waits, where would one start?  You could grab Bad as Me, which is wonderful, or…

…with Beautiful Maladies.

It’s a compilation album, encompassing the work Waits did for Island Records during the ten years from 1983-1993, and usually compilation albums suck.  This one was compiled by the man himself, however, and it attains what compilation albums (and even live albums, mostly) never do, which is coherence and a sense of narrative.  In fact, the sequencing of this album is decidedly similar to his Mule Variations from 1999.  Both albums start with a kick (“Hang on St. Christopher,” “Big in Japan”) that sets the table for what is to follow — strange instrumentation, a unique spiritual landscape somewhere between Dust Bowl America and Brothers Grimm Germany, and Tom Waits’ distinctive vocals and phrasing — before drifting into meditative, slower numbers (“Clap Hands,” “Hold On”), spoken word pieces (“Frank’s Wild Years,” “What’s He Building in There?”), nighttime meanderings through Waits’ world of invented characters fresh from burlesque shows, circuses, and boxcars (“Shore Leave,” “Eyeball Kid”), and deeply moving, closely observed examinations of real life crashing in on people in lonely, heartbreaking ways (“Strange Weather,” “November,” “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” and “Pony,” “Georgia Lee,” “Take it With Me”).  So not only is Beautiful Maladies a compelling album, at the end of the day, it’s a compelling Tom Waits album, that feels as organic and unified as anything else he’s done.
Waits has a reputation for his gravelly voice, and it is well earned, but people often overlook his range and diversity of vocal presentation.  On albums like Blood Money, Waits’ voice sounds like it’s on its last legs and it can be hard to listen to at times. It wasn’t until I heard subsequent albums that I realized his voice doesn’t have to sound like that. On Beautiful Maladies, there are Blood Money moments, like “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” but there are also moments when Waits could be characterized as even crooning (“Innocent When You Dream,” and a personal favorite, “Time”).  By creating this cross-section of a representative period of his career, he has forged a compelling primer for the many voices of Tom Waits, and it lowers the barriers to entry for people to whom his voice might sound jarring at first.  Like anything, though, the edges become smoother with repeated listens, and ultimately, this man’s enduring songcraft, his totally unique perspective on the human condition, and his alluring sense of gallows humor are the characteristics that have allowed him to capture so many people’s imaginations.  All of them are on display in Beautiful Maladies.
Find more Tom Waits albums at Myspace Music
Finally, if you have never heard Waits’ original version of “Downtown Train,” and are only familiar with Rod Stewart’s schlocky cover version, you really, really, really owe it to yourself to hear the original.

Great Album Reviews: Cleansing

Album: Cleansing
Artist: Prong
Genre: Metal
Year: 1994

I know I play acoustic guitar and play what are essentially folk songs, but a great album is a great album.

Back in the early- to mid-1990s, there was a nationally syndicated radio station called Z-Rock (106.9 in Houston), a hard rock and metal station that did many wonderful things for the world, including broadcasting Pearl Jam’s famous 1994 concert from Atlanta’s Fox Theatre live.  Z-Rock had a show called “Back Rockwards,” where they would give the listeners a clue and and then play a song backwards.  You’d call in, guess the song, and if you got it right, they’d send you some CDs that you would then give away to friends or cash in at the local used CD place to get something that was actually good.  I know this, because one night in 1994, they gave the clue “Digital Chiropractor,” and after the first three backwards notes, I was on the phone to Z-Rock and guessing Prong’s “Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck” correctly.  They had no idea how I’d figured it out so quickly (magic), and sent me Tool’s Undertow (which I already had) and a bunch of cheesy CDs as a reward. But really, winning a national radio contest was reward enough.

In 1996, I was playing drums in a band called Black Spiral, and we were still finding our way creatively.  We’d written three songs, but didn’t have a clear direction in terms of genre.  We were kind of thrash, kind of hard rock, kind of metal, and filled out our sets with cover songs.  Since none of the three members could sing, we recruited another guy to do the vocal duties.  He was a good, but tended away from the heavier aspects of metal.  During our fourth show as a band, he walked offstage in the middle of our set to go… I think…drink a beer or smoke a joint with somebody he knew.  Left without a vocalist just as we were beginning “Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck,” our bass player got so furious that he just started screaming the lyrics into the vacated microphone.  And it sounded AWESOME.
That fixed our direction, and we became a death metal band — it didn’t matter if we couldn’t sing because now we could growl.  We put out an album in 1999 called Defeat, and in retrospect, that album probably would not exist without Cleansing.
Cleansing remains Prong’s best-selling and best-reviewed album.  The band put out two major-label releases leading up to 1994’s Cleansing, then one after, and in the years since have gone through multiple lineup changes, released two more studio albums, a few live releases, and suffered the tragic sudden death by heart attack of bassist Paul Raven.  Prong’s only constant member has been guitarist/singer/lyricist/songwriter and all-around repository of metal awesomeness Tommy Victor; he has also done stints in Danzig and Ministry.  
I have soft spots in my heart for all of Prong’s albums, to varying degrees, but for my money, Prong/Tommy Victor belong in the metal pantheon on the strength of Cleansing alone.  It was the band’s best lineup — Victor, Raven, and Ted Parsons (drums) — and everything about the album, from songwriting, to production, to sequencing, is flawless.  This is, very simply, what an album should be.  The songs are individually very strong (“Another Worldly Device,” “Snap Your Fingers…,” “Whose Fist is This Anyway,” “Broken Peace,” and “Test” are standouts), and put together in a way that leads the listener on a path.  From the opening riff of “Another Worldly Device” to the the extended deceleration at the end of that last track, “Test,” the album brings you into a world, shows you around, and then shows you the door.
Labels like “the riff king” have been applied to Tommy Victor, and he does have a gift for writing guitar riffs that are both memorable and distinct.  His riffs sound like they came from the same place, but they are not indistinguishable, which is a challenge that few metal musicians really ever overcome.  How does one manage to create an album or a song that is “the same but different,” giving fans what they expect without boring them?  I don’t know that I know the answer to that, but Tommy Victor apparently does.
But to focus on his riff-writing is to sell him short.  The songs on Cleansing are truly crafted.  Take, for instance, track four — “Cut-rate.”  This song sits between the blistering “Whose Fist…” and the the more groove-oriented “Broken Peace,” and it is a perfect bridge between the two.  It starts fast and heavily syncopated, and sprints along until everything drops away except for a single, sustained guitar note, and then everything comes back in at half-time, with a pounding, groovy outro that not only provides a powerful contrast with the rest of the song, giving it shape and balance, but also paves the way for “Broken Peace” to follow. The three-piece band relies heavily on layered guitars, doubled vocals, and what might be called “grunt harmony”…not harmony in the true sense, but simultaneous vocal lines that complement each other, delivered in Victor’s trademark rasp.  The production by the legendary Terry Date no doubt contributed to the high level of execution in terms of the songs’ construction, and provided the razor-sharp, industrial-tinged sound that still sounds fresh and holds up remarkably well, even after fifteen-or-so years of evolution in the genre.
I feel like greater public exposure to Prong might have averted the whole Nu Metal thing.  A lot more people enjoy aggressive music than can get behind guttural death metal or operatic NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) vocal stylings, so Nu Metal came in and offered people aggressive music with less menacing vocal delivery and intelligible lyrics. Except that Nu Metal was basically an updated version of the glam scene, and Prong has substance, amazing songcraft, and offers the uninitiated a vocal style that doesn’t immediately create a wall between the band and new listeners.
So if you’ve got Limp Bizkit or Papa Roach CDs lurking in your closet, it’s time to throw them out, and (through your distribution vehicle of choice) replace them with Cleansing.