Johnny Cash – I Would Like to See You Again

I Would like to See You Again

Johnny CashI Would Like to See You Again Columbia KC 35313 (1978)

In a relative sense at least, I Would Like to See You Again is one choice for Johnny Cash’s best album from the period that ran from the late 1970s through entire 1980s — only the unusual and slightly rough-hewn concept album The Rambler comes close, but that one puts theatrical elements in place of proper songs in a way that makes it less suited to regular listening.  From the odd album cover, to the generally lackluster quality of his albums of this time period, this album doesn’t seem like it would have much to offer.  Add to that the fact that Cash compilations tend to include the least interesting songs on it, and maybe it is not too surprising that this is often overlooked entirely.  By no means is this a top tier Cash album.  It still plays well all the way through — helped, perhaps, by being a meager 32 odd minutes in length.  There is an amiable, mellow tone to most of the songs, with a hint of weariness and nostalgia.  Cash’s voice is unburdened by overbearing fads and the band plays supportively.  Pianist Earl Poole Ball, a veteran who played with Buck Owens and plenty of other country legends, was a huge asset to Cash’s band.  He (with the other session pianists) plays just enough to change the pace without overdoing it.  The guitarists add some politely sly licks on an electric guitar to further inject some virility.

The songs are nice.  They suit Cash in middle age.  One of the best is “Abner Brown.”  Cash wrote the song himself.  As a character portrait, it was a familiar format for him (e.g., “Cisco Clifton’s Fillin’ Station”).  It is a tale of a small town drunk known from childhood, admired and celebrated by the narrator for his good nature.  Others only tolerated Abner Brown, but Cash’s song celebrates him as a friend and a salt of earth type (in the full biblical meaning of the phrase drawn from the Sermon on the Mount).  The one song that does seem out of character, with its heavy (right-wing) rural populism, is “After Taxes” (not written by Cash).  But the album opens strong with the title track, “Lately,” and “I Wish I Was Crazy Again.”  “I Don’t Think I Could Take You Back Again” might be the most effective performance.

Few will name this as a career favorite from Cash, but it is a good one to play to accompany a reunion of unselfconscious friends or any other gathering of effortlessly familiar, kindred spirits.  It has a slight “bro” quality perhaps; it isn’t intrusive though.

Shawn Phillips – Collaboration


Shawn PhillipsCollaboration A&M SP 4324 (1971)

A bit too hippie-dippy at times, there is an over-abundance of gimmicks in the vocals, and the lyrics often fall flat or provoke half a cringe, but there is a lot to admire in the musical innovations here.  Phillips takes folk and throws it together with prog rock, with touches of jazz and classical.  This album is titled Collaboration and the jacket describes it as a collaboration by Shawn Phillips with Paul Buckmaster and Peter Robinson.  Buckmaster does some amazing things.  The song “Us We Are” includes orchestration, but it is so subtle and organic that the string and horn orchestrations are already well underway before they are noticeable!  Songs like “Moonshine” have some nice keyboards from Robinson too, with a dexterity and morose ease that works very well.  The side one closer “Armed” brings all the instrumentalists’ talents together best.  So, while Collaboration has its appeal, it is perhaps a step down from Second Contribution, which is much more consistent even if somewhat less daring or innovative.  It might have been better with an additional collaborator to handle lyrics and vocals.

Johnny Cash – The Fabulous Johnny Cash

The Fabulous Johnny Cash

Johnny CashThe Fabulous Johnny Cash Columbia CS 8122 (1959)

The Fabulous Johnny Cash was the Cash’s first full-length album for Columbia Records after leaving Sun Records in an abrupt and strained departure.  He more or less picked up exactly where he left off at Sun.  Every song is drenched in reverb.  He mixes in a number of melodramatic love songs, which he had started doing in his final days recording for Sun.  There also are more male backing vocals.  But Columbia was able to record Cash better than the tiny Sun, so his voice is cradled in velvety surroundings, sounding as smooth as it possibly could be.  The songs here are nothing particularly special, except for “I Still Miss Someone,” one of his best.  On the whole, the weaker songs hold this back a bit, but just for how the recordings and his voice sound it’s among Cash’s better efforts of the 1950s.  But The Sound of Johnny Cash and Songs of Our Soil are both similar albums that are each better overall.

Ursula K. Le Guin – The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed

Ursula K. Le GuinThe Dispossessed (Harper & Row 1974)

In the tradition of leftist utopian novels, often there is a tendency to make story and plot secondary to gratuitous description and monologues.  The bestselling Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy epitomizes that tendency.  Ursula Le Guin manages to make The Dispossessed, about a physicist named Shevek who leaves his isolated moon colony of Annares to pursue his research on the main planet Urras, one of the rare ones that fits sympathetic description of the workings of an anarcho-syndicalist society into a story that has merit on its own.

Le Guin is adept at inserting conspicuous phrasings that distinguish the anarchist society of Annares from contemporary language of Earth (acknowledging the so-called Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that the structure of a language affects the way speakers conceptualize their world).  Shevek’s daughter says, “you may share in the handkerchief that I use,” instead of “you may borrow my handkerchief.”  Her characters are the sorts that are rarely featured prominently in fiction of any medium: introverted, revolutionary, scientific.  When it comes to character development, she isn’t Tolstoy, but she gets the job done.

As most reviews note, a strength of the book is the critical view Le Guin takes of the anarchist moon colony.  She refuses to make it a place without problems, without fear, without ignorance.  It is a place still burdened by all the failings of humans.  By analogy, the major themes of the book recall Franz Kafka‘s The Trial, from the obscurantist-religious reading, in which Kafka’s protagonist Joseph K. struggles to apply rational logic to a legal system that ultimately is not rational because of its attachment to an irrational power system.  Le Guin does what Joseph K. could not; she replaces all state institutions and laws with a rational system based on a non-hierarchical, stateless society.  But she details how power structures linger, and they are much like those described by Kafka.  The social organization is still subject to individual anxieties, fears, and attempts to consolidate power.  But her main character Shevek engages his own limitations, and challenges himself to overcome them.

Just like tellings of Josef K.‘s story, Shevek goes beyond what his friend Bedap thinks about the unenlightened power structures that have been built up in an anarchist society that had supposedly permanently abolished them all long ago, to realize that there is no guarantee of consistency or meaning in any society, and he breaks the hold of the sustaining myth (the very preconditions of law) of the functioning behind-the-scenes power structures that “really” keep Annares going.  She drives this home by having Shevek’s mother argue — as Bedap’s rhetorical rival — to stop Shevek from communicating with the planet Urras about his physics theories.  Eventually, Shevek breaks the hold that the mother, and the belief that anything external to his mind provides meaning to his existence.

Take the following passage about the presence of police and military hierarchies.  Not only does Le Guin convey an awakening and a rising consciousness in Shevek, but she concretely explains how means are inseparably tied to ends in social structures:

“In the afternoon, when he cautiously looked outside, he saw an armored car stationed across the street and two others slewed across the street at the crossing.  That explained the shouts he had been hearing: it would be soldiers giving orders to each other.

“Atro had once explained to him how this was managed, how the sergeants could give the privates orders, how the lieutenants could give the privates and the segeants orders, how the captains . . . and so on and so on up to the generals, who could give everyone else orders and need take them from none, except the commander in chief.  Shevek had listened with incredulous disgust.  ‘You call that organization?’ he had inquired.  ‘You even call that discipline?  But it is neither.  It is a coercive mechanism of extraordinary efficiency — a kind of seventh-millennium steam engine!  With such a rigid and fragile structure what could be done that was worth doing?’  This had given Atro a chance to argue the worth of warfare as the breeder of courage and manliness and the weeder-out of the unfit, but the very line of his argument had forced him to concede the effectiveness of guerrillas, organized from below, self-disciplined.  ‘But that only works when the people think they’re fighting for something of their own — you know, their homes, or for some notion or other,’ the old man had said.  Shevek had dropped the argument.  He now continued it, in the darkening basement among the stacked crates of unlabeled chemicals.  He explained to Atro that he now understood why the army was organized as it was.  It was indeed quite necessary.  No rational form of organization would serve the purpose.  He simply had not understood that the purpose was to enable men with machine guns to kill unarmed men and women easily and in great quantities when told to do so.  Only he could still not see where courage, or manliness, or fitness entered in.”

So, this is a masterful novel, really as good as anything in science fiction.

Tom Zé – Fabrication Defect: Com defeito de fabricação

Fabrication Defect: Com defeito de fabricação

Tom ZéFabrication Defect: Com defeito de fabricação Luaka Bop 9362-46953-2 (1998)

When it comes to the work of Tom Zé, the most common comparisons from the English-speaking rock/pop music realm are Tom Waits (from the 1980s) or Captain Beefheart.  But the premise of Fabrication Defect, a concept album about the people of the Third World as “androids” having the “defects” and effrontery to “think, dance and dream,” takes its philosophy straight from the likes of the French writer Jean Genet, a lifelong thief who celebrated that role precisely because it was seen as a perversion by an immoral and corrupt social order.  Zé is part prankster, part eccentric visionary, part musical historian.  You won’t find a whole lot of popular music albums from people in their 60s this sharply caustic and irreverent.  But Zé is one of those beautiful oddities who makes his own precedent.  Fabrication Defect has the same wit and blend of high theory and fun gags (with a bit more in the gags department) as his great mid-1970s albums.

Funkadelic – Standing on the Verge of Getting It On

Standing on the Verge of Getting It On

FunkadelicStanding on the Verge of Getting It On Westbound WB 1001 (1974)

As Funkadelic and Parliament started to diverge, Standing on the Verge of Getting It On is kind of a return to form for guitarist Eddie Hazell.  He dominates some of the best parts of this album, especially the lengthy closer “Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts” — kind of a sequel to “Maggot Brain.”  “I’ll Stay” is another good one.  Hell, this whole album rocks like only Funkadelic could.  There are heavy grooves, and a heavy commitment to “free love” and whatever remained of the 1960s freak scene.  Of course it all sounds like a psychedelic trip too.  No other band managed the precarious balancing act of holding forth all the black and white musical elements that came so naturally to this group.  As Parliament gained popularity, there would be a lot less chaotic weirdness and more focused grooves, making this something of a last gasp for the offhand, working band qualities that carry much of the album so well.

Sonny Sharrock – Guitar


Sonny SharrockGuitar Enemy 88561-8177-1 (1986)

Sonny Sharrock’s solo album Guitar is a jazz album that might fairly be called sui generis.  Sure, there are other solo guitar albums out there.  But Guitar uniquely tried to push across atonal free jazz noise (high theory) and lovely melodic composition (low entertainment) simultaneously using contemporary recording techniques.  While that risked reaching neither sort of audience, the album in many ways succeeds in breaking down intellectual barriers that usually segregate the musical genres Sonny throws together.  Sharrock had been doing these sorts of things for a long time, though here he is routinely exploring disparate concepts within a given song, rather than merely in the juxtaposition between different songs (though there is some of that too).  “Like Voices of Sleeping Birds” perhaps best exemplifies the collision of sweetly strummed melody and caustic runs of biting metallic noise.  Those two parts of the song are opposite extremes, brought together to imply a third path that is not wholly determined by either extreme but that also is not a unified synthesis — both parts remain intact.  The music throughout the album is performed “solo”, but with the aid of studio overdubbing Sharrock lays down a sort of harmonic bed of echoing, reverb-laden sounds, which might have significant melodic content or might be more like atonal washes and pulses of sound, then he recorded solos over that foundation.  So he really accompanies himself.  It all sounds like it was recorded in the mid-1980s, because it was recorded then.  The album has a tinny, sterile, compressed sound.  But rarely did music of the day glide past such heavy-handed production so readily.  There is a glimmer to Sharrock’s guitar playing that can’t be denied.  He sounds like he’s making music that matters, to him if no one else.  Whether the version of his old composition “Blind Willie,” with celebratory and rousing riffs, or “Devils Doll Baby,” with abrasive and angular playing, or “Broken Toys” and “They Enter the Dream,” with pleasant and sentimental melodies, or “Kula-Mae,” with menacing rock phrasing, Sharrock always offers a twist on familiar forms.  Back in this time period, there were a lot of “fantasy” genre movies, and in a way Guitar is like a little musical fantasy epic brimming with hopes and dreams, and desires and laments.  In any event, listeners who like this may find themselves utterly captivated by it.  One of Sharrock’s best.