Category Archives: Reviews

Johnny Cash – America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song

America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song

Johnny CashAmerica: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song Columbia KC 31645 (1972)

The early 1970s were a turbulent time in America, with the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam war, the biggest economic crisis the Western world had faced in many decades, continued fights to implement integration, women’s liberation, and much more.  Oh, and there was a lot of stuff happening to celebrate the 200-year anniversary of the nation’s independence from England in 1776.  Along comes Johnny Cash, with this album, depicting him on the cover in a military-style jacket on a decrepit farmhouse porch behind a flag, and subtitled “A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song”.  The theme is American history.  It looks pretty heavy-handed on paper.  The thing is, he does a pretty good job with this concept.  He re-records a few tunes he had done before, and performs an assortment of other songs, mostly new ones written himself.  There is a lot of between-song spoken dialog, and even a recitation of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  Some of these tracks were recorded exclusively for the astronauts on the Apollo 14 space mission (the one where Alan Shepard hit golf balls on the Moon), but ended up here instead.  Like much of Cash’s early 70s output, the songs have a minimalist, folky feel, and there are only a couple of cuts with his trademark boom-chicka-boom rhythm (“Paul Revere,” “These Are My People”).  And while this looks a lot like a very rudimentary recitation of the standard “story of America” taught to little kids in grade school, it ends up being slightly more nuanced than that.  “Big Foot,” about the Wounded Knee Massacre, wasn’t something frequently taught in school history classes — would Cash have dug Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States when it came out years later?  This release predated the Pine Ridge Incident, erupting in response to the anniversary of Wounded Knee, by only a matter of months.  Yet Cash elsewhere celebrates genocidal madmen like Christopher Columbus, so there are still contradictions.  Listeners who want Johnny in good voice, recorded well with a crisp and talented backing band will probably find lots to like here.  Those who focus on lyrics more than the instrumental contributions probably will care a lot less for this one.  In any event, this was one of Cash’s last concepts albums.

Johnny Cash – Ragged Old Flag

Ragged Old Flag

Johnny CashRagged Old Flag Columbia KC 32917 (1974)

Johnny Cash’s recordings of the 1970s aren’t usually regarded well.  He seemed to struggle with issues that tend to face every big star eventually:  what happens when you’ve been around the business for long enough that popular tastes have changed and new trends and fads have come along?  Stay true to what you always did (even if that is less popular) or adapt to the times (can you pull it off)?  Interestingly, Cash tries a little of both with Ragged Old Flag.

The title track finds Cash displaying his most chauvinistic, nationalist populism, which is presented as mere patriotism during the midst of the Watergate scandal.  It’s always hard to pin down Cash on politics, but it is common for people who lived through the Watergate era and fully understood Nixon’s crimes to insist that the president shouldn’t have gone to prison or been removed from office, just out of some vague sense of “patriotism”.  Cash seems to take a similar view, at least by implication.  It’s maybe also worth noting that Cash had met Nixon personally by this time, and had performed for him at the White House.

The album often recalls the “old” sound of Cash’s 50s recordings.  But Charlie Bragg is the co-producer, and he seems responsible for providing a more contemporary country flair to some of the material here, most notably “Southern Comfort.”  Cash has good support from Earl Scruggs on banjo and The Oak Ridge Boys on backing vocals throughout.  Some of the folkier moments build on what was achieved on Hello, I’m Johnny Cash and Man in Black too, with a little more slick and polished sound.

Cash wrote (or co-wrote) everything here.  Some of those efforts are worthy of note.  “Don’t Go Near the Water” is an environmentalist paean.  It’s something unusual for a country star.  Then there is “King of the Hill,” a song that prefigures a lot of what Bruce Springsteen would become known for a few years down the line.  It’s a song about “manly” men who want to succeed in life and go to the coal mines rather than the cotton mill to do it.  But by the end, the song conveys that eventually all the coal will be gone, and if you’re not dead already you can call yourself king of the hill.  But it’s a kind of sad prize, and Cash very subtly makes it an ironic one, implying (without clearly stating it, except through a little chuckle) that maybe it was all a waste.

This album is among the better of Cash’s efforts of the decade.  Much of side two runs a little thinner after the good “Lonesome to the Bone,” but side one in particular delivers some good performances and songwriting with energy and conviction.  This isn’t the place to start with Cash.  Still, admirers may want to take a listen at some point as it would be a full twenty years before he made another album this good.

The Golden Age of Movie Musicals: The MGM Years

The Golden Age of Movie Musicals: The MGM Years

Various ArtistsThe Golden Age of Movie Musicals: The MGM Years MGM P6S 5878 (1973)

While showtunes and soundtrack music might not be things that I personally enjoy all that much, you can’t go wrong with this set if you want an introduction to those genres.  I really respect what was done here.  From a historical perspective this collection of recordings is amazing.  It features some of the most well-known music of the 20th Century.  People who wouldn’t consider themselves music listeners in the slightest probably still know the melody to “Over the Rainbow” and “Singin’ in the Rain”, or could recognize “Theme from ‘A Summer Place'”.  The common denominator of this music is its simplicity.  In terms of rhythm, nothing here is beyond a remedial level.  The melodies are all straightforward and uncomplicated.  The vocals often lack much subtlety, but instead focus on brute force vibrato.  The instrumental film music on the final two “bonus” discs deals only in broad strokes, with lots of syrupy string arrangements and melodramatic surges.  Despite the enormous popular recognition of this music, it would seem that already most of it is nothing more than an anachronism.  The theatrical and vaudevillian aspects of this stuff — cartoonish, larger-than-life emoting that doesn’t leave any room for a reaction other than the one intended — isn’t all that common outside of Bollywood just a few decades on.  It’s a wonder how tastes change so fast.  I guess that Bollywood comment might make for an interesting comparison: is this music something that is borne out of socioeconomic conditions to fill a gap between the general public’s cultural sophistication and its more rapidly rising disposable income?  At its worst, that is probably exactly what it does.  But here we get some of the best and brightest moments, where there’s something more at work.  “Over the Rainbow” and “Singin’ in the Rain” are so well known because they simply are great songs.  And there are plenty more great songs here.  There was also a book of the same name by Lawrence B. Thomas released just before this LP box set, which might be of interest.  There are no liner notes to speak of with this set, so perhaps the book has more information about the music (I haven’t read it).

David Ruffin – My Whole World Ended

My Whole World Ended

David RuffinMy Whole World Ended Motown MS685 (1969)

Take a hundred albums at random, no ten thousand, and chances are you won’t end up with even one with the depth and sweetness of My Whole World Ended.  It’s hard to go wrong with Motown’s golden age soul, which practically offers a guarantee of one or two classics somewhere on a full-length LP.  But it was rare before the 1970s for Motown to produce an album that felt like a classic as a whole.  To that short list add David Ruffin’s solo debut.

Ruffin was a singer gifted with a one-of-a-kind voice, but he was also someone who paid his dues and put in the work to learn what it takes to be a soul singer.  Through his teens, he was touring in gospel shows and had first-hand experience with just about all the biggest acts on the gospel highway, Mahalia Jackson, The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Swan Silvertones, you name it.  He was even in The Soul Stirrers briefly.  A gospel background was the secret weapon of many great soul singers, and Ruffin had that pedigree too.

Of course, the reason most people know Ruffin is as one of the lead singers of The Temptations.  He might be the only lead singer they recognize, from his lead on one of the most instantly recognizable pop songs ever recorded, “My Girl.”  Fans might also know his lead on other greats like “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” too.  A few other things might come to mind if you know anything beyond Ruffin’s music.  He developed a reputation as a prima donna.  He wanted The Temptations to rename themselves “David Ruffin & The Temptations.”  Through the years he developed a massive cocaine habit as well.

After finally exiting The Temptations, Motown gave Ruffin every opportunity for his solo debut.  He got the best songs, the best producers, and of course probably the best studio band around, The Funk Brothers.  This album came out of the Hitsville, U.S.A. assembly line.  It bears all the hallmarks of the classic Motown sound, with throbbing bass from James Jamerson punctuated with horns, strings, woodwinds, and backing vocals.  With the handful of producers on board this never settles into any sort of rut, but these musicians worked together so much that there is still a cohesion.  The best part is that almost nothing repeats.  These songs grow and evolve.  They don’t just extrapolate a simple riff.  The embellishments vary too.  One moment it’s horns, the next strings, the next some vocals, then a harpsichord, elsewhere a flute, and a few time some hints of bells are draped over the top.  A light touch keeps the arrangements from crowding out Ruffin’s vocals, and, as one of the supreme achievements, the orchestration fits the core electric soul instrumentation like a glove.  Take the backing vocals too.  They don’t resemble what The Temptations did.  These have no doo-wop roots.  They come across casually.  It’s like some friends wandered along and just couldn’t help but sing along.  But they keep their voices down, to be polite and supportive.

These songs all have a dark side.  Just look through the words in the song titles: worlds are ending, everything is lost, there’s a double-cross, there’s darkness, dreams have been stolen, and this guy’s baby is gone.  When you then read a title like “Message from Maria,” could it possibly be a hopeful message?  Not in the bleak universe Ruffin crafted.

All this discussion hasn’t even touched on the magnificent vocal performances yet.  David Ruffin has a voice that almost any soul singer would die for.  There is a grit and coarseness in it that makes every note seem like a bitter and tragic struggle.  And that’s every note.  When bolstered by the sweet, sumptuous music, Ruffin’s voice conveys a great tragic sense of loss.  But not an everyday loss.  This is world-crushing loss.  It cuts, like a deep wound that might never heal.

“My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)” opens the album.  The first things heard are woodwinds and strings with heavy maracas.  Only after a few moments is a syncopated beat introduced.  When Ruffin enters, he’s humming.  By the time he’s singing, “Last week my life had meaning…,” there is no question that the star of this album has arrived.  Some of the lyrics rhyme, but only a few.  They are about holding on to find a new world, now that the old is gone.  But it almost doesn’t matter what the words are.  Ruffin’s voice has all the ache and sadness needed.  His voice alone conveys the heartbreak.  This is a song perfectly suited to his style of singing.  He’s always shifting, singing with a bit of a smooth crooner’s style but marked with gravelly texture, and broken up with melismata and added phrases (“aww, tell me baby,” “oh yes it did, baby, baby”).  He’s cataloging ways to cope with loss. This is a song that can make an album.  It’s a song that, in the right setting, could just play again and again on repeat and no amount of repetition would ever be enough.  Yeah, it’s that good.

“Everlasting Love” has been sung by many others.  When Ruffin does it here he seems adrift.  He’s mining all the drama in the song.  The confines of the rhythm aren’t enough to hold him.  He even screams.  It seems like a love song, but it’s also a plea, built from regret, longing and loneliness.

So much bleakness and uncertainty…it’s only a few hard-fought personal connections that seem tangible on My Whole World Ended and in that this feels like a grounded sort of music.  There isn’t the mysticism of Van Morrison‘s Astral Weeks, but this one feels like a more pubic version of the same searching, longing and obsession that fuelled Morrison’s classic.  Ruffin is posed on the album cover almost like Rodin’s “The Thinker,” and (apart from the corny globe in the background) he’s making a thinking person’s album.

There are a lot more great songs here, “I’ve Lost Everything I’ve Ever Loved,” “My Love Is Growing Stronger,” and “The Double Cross.” These tunes run a gamut from slow ballads (“Somebody Stole My Dream,” “Message from Maria”) to mid-tempo, funky rockers (“Pieces of a Man,” “Flower Child”) and even a roiling, off-kilter rocker (“World of Darkness”).  My Whole World Ended is just one of those albums that is worth it.  It was a hit in its day but for some reason tends to be left off the list of essential soul classics.  Rescue it, if only for yourself.

Lou Reed – The Blue Mask

The Blue Mask

Lou ReedThe Blue Mask RCA Victor AFL1-4221 (1982)

Well, Lou Reed’s career has covered as much territory as anyone else’s in rock.  The Blue Mask renewed his critical cachet in the early 1980s.  Frankly, it is executed flawlessly.  Robert Quine adds some scorching guitar to bolster Reed’s occasionally humdrum fretwork.  Let’s face it, Reed was always a risk taker on guitar, but he was hardly ever more proficient than a thoroughly average rhythm guitarist, sort of rock’s equivalent to baseball’s utility infielder.  But Quine was willing and able to deliver plenty of explosive guitar excursions, as best summed up by the unrelenting, jaw-dropping abstraction of his solo that concludes “Waves of Fear”.

So if there are complaints to be heard bout The Blue Mask, they have to be about the concept.  And what of the concept?  Basically Reed takes up the challenge he more tentatively presented on earlier works of making a middle-aged rock album.  Conventional wisdom is that rock and roll is a young person’s game. The Rolling Stones touched on the issue with Jagger’s “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll,” which reviewer BradL describes as “a song about the relationship between the musician and his audience, and the inevitable gap that arises as he gets older and his audience stays young[.]”  Well, truthfully, that’s just one possibility.  The “other path” is for the aging rocker to change, and essentially leave behind “rock” per se in favor of more of a sophisticated pop sound, to wit Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds and others.  But Reed’s version of middle-aged rock will have nothing of the latter.  This is rock.  His lyrics are about domestic life and ordinary concerns of life in Western Civilization.  But those lyrics are as much about contentment as fear, uncertainty, and disturbing undercurrents running through everything else.

Lou Reed is certainly writing about what he knows.  The casual autobiographical style of so much of this album attests to that, like his expressed adoration for his writing, his motorcycle and his wife on “My House,” his supposed worries about crime waves in the streets on “Average Guy,” and the emotional outpouring for then-wife Sylvia on “Heavenly Arms.”  But honesty and the act of conveying something that the artist knows are not enough, else any self-indulgent claptrap would pass for something special.  It doesn’t, unless it touches on something elemental and grand, something lasting and universal.  It is there that almost all argument with this album lies.  Something serious and lasting is here, if you are willing to accept it.  The psychiatrist C.G. Jung postulated “individuation” as the process of maturing to where a person is conscious of both the personal and collective unconscious.  In a practical sense individuation is about accepting and resolving supposed contradictions, and about assimilating opposite characteristics.  Jung’s genius provides the key to this album really.  But because individuation rarely starts before you are in your thirties, if it ever starts at all, it is no wonder that the standards of youthful rock and roll hardly seem to apply to something unmistakably middle-aged.

If you reject what you just read, you still probably fall into the camp where you can appreciate some of the harder stuff here like “The Gun,” “The Blue Mask,” and “Waves of Fear” just for its drive.  But to really get behind this whole motherfucker, it takes some kind of appreciation for the notion that purely adult themes have a place in rock and roll.  Not everybody will agree with that premise, but The Blue Mask is one of the better arguments for it.

Willie Nelson – The Words Don’t Fit the Picture

The Words Don't Fit the Picture

Willie NelsonThe Words Don’t Fit the Picture RCA Victor LSP-4653 (1972)

Willie Nelson languished in near obscurity as a solo artist through the 1960s and early 1970s, despite recognition penning a number of hits for others.  In his early days he conformed to the whims of his producers, with a typical “Nashville” sound.  As time went on, he — like a lot of Motown stars like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder — sought to assert himself more in the recording process.  His vocals changed.  Rather than holding notes for a long time and adding a lot of vibrato like a pop crooner, he sang ahead of the beat more forcefully and sang with more clipped, staccato phrasing.  The backing vocals, string backing, and other Nashville trappings fell by the wayside too, and Willie’s accomplished guitar playing featured more prominently — characterized by his trademark pauses interrupted by staccato runs on his iconic converted classical acoustic guitar.

The Words Don’t Fit the Picture is something of a forgotten item in the Nelson catalog — AMG gives it only a one-sentence review, RYM has no reviews and only a few ratings and it’s not even mentioned in Graeme Thomson’s biography Willie Nelson: The Outlaw.  It was released around the time Nelson moved to the Austin, Texas area and hired a new cutthroat manager from the rock world, before his big break with Shotgun Willie.  It has elements of the Nashville sound, but also plenty of moments that foreshadow the ways Nelson would breakthrough to superstardom in a few years.  He wrote or co-wrote everything here.  Though it would be hard to call any of these standouts, there’s not a bad tune to be found.  And this set is nothing if not eclectic.  Nelson’s wide interests in jazz, western swing, traditional pop, soul, etc. subtly make their presence felt.  In essence, Willie takes the Nashville sound as far out as it can go, right to its furthest boundaries.  Take “London,” for instance, which sounds like a countrified version of a beatnik monologue off a Tom Waits album.

This may be a transitional effort, but it wonderfully captures a lot of strengths of the different elements at play.  It also shows that Nelson was certainly a professional, delivering crisp songs in an assured manner, even when they have “typical Nashville” written all over them.  Listeners who can forget about where this stands in relation to other things Nelson has done may find that this is simply a damn fine country album.

Willie Nelson – The Sound in Your Mind

The Sound in Your Mind

Willie NelsonThe Sound in Your Mind Columbia PC-34092 (1976)

Willie’s proper follow-up to his smash success Red Headed Stranger is another winner.  He sounds perfectly at ease with himself, ready to let this album unfold slowly.  Martin Scorsese once recounted his career in the 1970s and 80s by noting that no one had time for a personal cinema in the 80s.  What was true for film also held true for music.  The intimate and frequently sad, downer themes of a lot of 70s music largely disappeared in the 80s.  That’s one reason The Sound in Your Mind stands out, because this sort of album wasn’t being made anymore a few years later.  That’s a damn shame too.  Because Willie does a lot of intimate songs here that touch on many poignant, lonely sentiments in a warm and comfortable way that found no space in public consciousness in the coming Thatcher-Reagan era.

One of Willie Nelson’s best qualities was the eclectic musical interest he had, and the ways he could bring his varied interests to bear on his records with a light and never overbearing touch.  This collection of old standards and new performances of some of his own best-known (but old) songwriting is presented with spare and unobtrusive accompaniment.  There is a late-night aura over everything.  A small but rich assortment of pedal steel, piano and prominent bass give help keep this from settling into too much of a same-y sounding rut (what The Troublemaker threatened to succumb to).

If any one thing stands out most about The Sound in Your Mind it has to be Nelson’s vocals.  His vocal delivery evolved over time.  By the mid-70s he reached his peak.  It might be fair to say this album was his very peak as a vocalist.  That voice, with its natural Texas twang and ahead of the beat—and sometimes behind—attack, is an irrevocable force, as immediately recognizable as that of any singer of the 20th century.  By this point he used vibrato much more willingly than a decade prior.  This album is loaded with great songs and performances, like “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” “That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day),” “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time),” and “The Healing Hands of Time.”  This is another great one from a stretch where it seemed like Willie couldn’t go wrong.

Willie Nelson – Phases and Stages

Phases and Stages

Willie NelsonPhases and Stages Atlantic SD 7291 (1974)

If a thing is really worth doing, it may take fits and starts and many failed attempts to finally get it done in spite of the tremendous inertia that resists changes of direction in life.  That describes both the process of making Phases and Stages and its thematic subject matter.  Willie Nelson worked on this album for a number of years before its release.  Many of the songs had been written long ago, and he had recorded early versions for RCA that weren’t released.  When he went to Atlantic Records, he had to obtain clearance from RCA before he could re-record the songs for this album.  While Willie liked to record with his touring band, the plain fact is that most of those musicians were of fairly modest abilities.  Producer Jerry Wexler brought Willie to Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama, home of many great soul recordings, to create the album.  Rather than the touring band, Nelson is supported by crack session men.  It’s the finely-honed abilities of the supporting musicians that brings life to Willie’s music here.  He put them on the spot, perhaps forgetting he was the only one who had lived with these tunes for years.  But preventing anyone from settling into the familiar is a perfect match for the tone of the material.  Phases and Stage is about the dissolution of a marriage, with side one taking the woman’s perspective and side two the man’s.  This is Nelson’s second concept album, the first being Yesterday’s Wine.  Johnny Cash had pioneered the use of concept albums in country music.  With precedent behind him, Willie makes this one work.  What gives this album its strength is its ability to tap into the mundane aspects of a romantic breakup with poetic grace.  The proper songs are broken up by a 20-30 second recurring theme, “Phases and Stages.”  It’s hard to point to any faults on this one, save perhaps some people’s desire to skip the recurring theme.  Phases and Stages is one of Nelson’s most durable albums, among his very finest — maybe even his very finest.