Johnny Cash – American VI: Ain’t No Grave

Well, to some of you who may have read my entry on the “final” Johnny Cash album toward the end of the 2009 project, you may remember me saying something that “that closes the book on Johnny Cash”, but it looks like I was wrong! American Recordings put out an album for Cash’s 78th birthday this last February, and wow did they ever save the best for last. Think “Hurt” is the best he could do*? Think “I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now” was the best “farewell” song to a performer’s life since “Keep Me In Your Heart For Awhile”? Well think again, because American VI: Ain’t No Grave blows all of those out of the water!

And if you believe that, I’ve got some swamp land in Florida I’d be interested in showing you, to borrow an old idiom.

Speaking of borrowing something old:

Man he wasn't looking half-bad for a man in his 70's.

Now, please don’t get me wrong, American VI is a fantastic album, and one of the highlights of 2010 for me. I can’t knock this album on any level, but there’s no use trying to hide the fact that it’s an album for a certain kind of Johnny Cash fan, which is what I would consider myself. I’ll explain.

There is this company called Bear Family out in Germany who, for folks like me, are a God-send; their main thing is to collect every Cash studio tape they can get their hands on, and come out with these amazingly comprehensive (and equally expensive) box sets of everything Johnny Cash recorded in a certain time period. Are you the kind of person who would purchase such a set and revel in the lost studio recordings that never made it onto the properly planned albums, just because it’s Johnny Cash singing a song you hadn’t heard him sing yet?

If so, congratulations! You owe it to yourself and your creepy obsession with The Man In Black to buy American VI, so go do it. 

For the rest of you weirdos, I’ll explain what there is to like about the album, and I’ll try my best to empathize with those of you who aren’t totally into everything Johnny Cash ever did as best I can, and tell you what you might NOT like about the album.

As you turn the album on and the acoustic guitars gently weep out some sad minor chords, you may be struck with a sort of sense that you have heard this before, and indeed, as soon as the 2/4 stomp comes in (complete with chain rattling foley!), you realize that “Ain’t No Grave” is basically the same structure and mood as the single off his previous album, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” (only thankfully without the modern pop stars and celebrities goofing up the thing with their stupid mugs). Not only do those songs sound pretty close, but you may notice the video, a smattering of old archival videos and photographs, seems pretty similar to the video for “Hurt“, only without the emotional appeal and the subtle story being told by the mix of old imagery with new.

That video and song pretty much represents what you might not like about this album. It’s less of a cohesive story or collection of songs meant to convey Cash’s emotional state, but really more of a collection of stuff put together in such a way as to pass the requisite time and give people who want to hear Cash a little something more to hear. Now, since the man has been dead for almost 10 years, having any new content is something to be thankful for (and trust me I am thankful), but if you are expecting the same tear-inducing melancholy from any of the other American albums (especially IV and V), this album may come up a bit short at best and, at worst, derivative of Rick Rubin’s much better production work on the other albums.

Man, even WRITING that seems harsh to me, so I am going to cut that out and talk about the good stuff on this album, as there is plenty of that.

For one, the minor chord weepy guitars don’t end at “Ain’t No Grave”, in fact they continue right on into one of the stand-out tracks, “Redemption Day“, which is one of those kind of songs I probably would not like if it wasn’t Cash singing it, since it’s actually a Sheryl Crow song and is by far the “youngest” song that Cash covers in this set of songs.  As it stands, it’s a very good song, and conveys very well Johnny’s life-long message of sin vs. redemption, plus the instrumentation that accompanies the song is quite appropriate, as it is for the rest of the songs, really, so you’re off the hook this time, Rubin.

Another essential part of this album is in its lone original track, which Cash penned based on the Bible verse “Corinthians 15:55“. While it’s not nearly as original as “Like The 309”, in some ways I like it better. I think the main reason is because it sounds like an authentic old Baptist hymn, and I love those songs a lot. As the verse goes, Cash begs the question “O Death, where is thy sting?” which is his old-religion way of fearlessly recognizing the end of his life, and to those of us who may have a ways to go, it’s quite an inspirational number.

Speaking of inspiration, I was happy that the formerly-Kill-Bill-exclusive “A Satisfied Mind” wound up on this release, because I quite enjoyed that song but don’t dig those kinds of films.

Something interesting about that song (originally a Porter Wagoner song) and indeed the rest of the album is that it’s actually the most “Country” of the later American albums, which is something I definitely count as a positive in this album. Although I definitely concede that Cash could make his own any song he was interested in, but his love for Country music was quite obvious, and definitely comes out in the performance.

One thing that kind of surprised me, however, was that Cash re-worked an old classic he had taken on years ago with “Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream“, which serves as the penultimate song on the album. It’s a rather cute folk-ish song about the author dreaming that war had ended, and it’s quite the classic (according to my SECRET internet sources, it’s been translated to over 70 languages around the world). The interesting thing about the song’s inclusion is that, despite it being written in 1950 (possibly in response to the Korean War), Cash covered it in the early 70’s while he was protesting the Vietnam War, and indeed using it in 2002 (when he recorded it) can be seen as a response to the “War on Terror” or war in Iraq or whatever you want to call it (“Overseas Contingiency Operation”? Anyone?), and indeed, when the album came out in 2010 and even as I write this, that war is STILL going on, and the song takes on a new meaning and urgency with every moment that passes. Just think, if the war had ended, it’s possible that song might not have been included on the album, which would be a shame because it’s such a beautiful song.

Speaking of, the album ends with a song that is equal parts beautiful and mystifying. “Aloha Oe“, also known as “The only song from Hawaii that anyone knows”, finishes out the album in a sweet but rather puzzling way. It’s kind of interesting, when one looks at “We’ll Meet Again” or “I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now“, the closing numbers on the previous American albums, both songs are eloquent and meaningful in their own little ways, but then you get to the final Final album and Cash sends himself off as if he was going home from a cruise or something. In a way, it almost seems fitting, especially when one considers that he spent most of his later years in a home in Jamaica, and thus was rather used to island living by that point, but it’s still something I’m trying to wrap my head around.

I guess, despite how seriously one can take life, it’s almost never worth it to do so. Indeed, as seriously as someone can take Johnny Cash, some people (myself included) should more fully realize that the man was an entertainer, and despite being a fantastic American hero, was really just a guy who really loved songs. Why should we be all morose when thinking about Johnny Cash, just because he’s gone? His music is still here, and will always be here, and we should be thankful to everyone involved that it happened that way.

For that reason and more, American VI is a fantastic album and you should definitely pick it up. It may not be a Bear Family Box Set’s worth of lost treasures, but at least it wasn’t lost.

*Apparently, NME thinks so; they voted it the number 1 best music video of all time. Not too bad!

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Bob Dylan – Christmas In The Heart

Bob Dylan, at least in my eyes, is an institution. I have never heard a single album or even full song by the man*, and I could not recall a single line of music he has ever done, unless it’s something that’s been covered by someone else, yet I know exactly what his voice sounded like in all his various eras, I know his history as the reluctant hero of the musical protest era of the 60’s, and I know that he is the most respected songwriter, comma, period. That was an incredible run-on sentence, and I knew I couldn’t let this wondrous Christian holiday without talking about the god-damned Bob Dylan Christmas album, also known as Christmas In The Heart, also also known as holy crap what is this:

I suppose before I undertake what will undoubtedly be a rather sparse writeup of the actual music contained herein, I should make a few admissions. For one, I hate Christmas music. It’s not that I don’t love Christmas, I think it’s a nice holiday despite the expensive gift exchange that brings about a month of retail hell on earth, but there’s something about the music that just bothers me. There are only a few pieces of music I can think of that only have occasional business being heard by anyone; the “Death March” by Handel (or the 3rd Movement of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35) for funerals, Pachelbel’s “Canon In D” for graduations (or the more popular “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” by Pachelbel protégé Greenday) for graduations, and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” for when you want to commit a drug-fueled suicide in the bathtub. So yes, there’s a song for every occasion, but the thing about Christmas is that it has thousands of songs for just one occasion which amounts to mainly eating oneself into a coma after receiving gifts that somehow always seem to be worth about half of what you gave out, all while burning enough electricity on lighting houses and trees to power all those villages in Africa we keep hearing about, all with a sort of bastardized, commercially sterilized version of vague spiritual back-patting, all the while making sure not to offend people who don’t believe in the same Christmas Tree (sorry, “Holiday” Tree, right?)

So yeah, Christmas is fun but is generally meaningless except to serve as a cultural institution that reminds us that it’s “that time of year again”. In that way, Christmas and Bob Dylan are very similar, except one contains a lot more booze and used to actually be relevant. I will leave it up to you to decide which.

I really can not fault Bob Dylan for wanting to make a Christmas album. After all, his contemporaries have all done Christmas albums (heck, Johnny Cash did at least three), and Bob Dylan tends to bring with him a touch of class, no matter how goofy the idea is, and certainly a prominent Jew singing about the birth of Jesus is already stacking the odds against our aging songster. Still, Dylan is undeterred, after all, he claims to have grown up with the music, and songs speak louder than sense to our man, so onward he presses.

I picked up this album and began listening to it and indeed it is a treasure. Being someone who’s not particularly into Dylan and especially against Christmas music, I still found a lot to love here. For one, the instrumentation is lovely, and I mean that in all seriousness. Aside from the cheesy use of bells of the church and reindeer variety (the oldest Christmas cliche), the music is kind of a blend of old-style Country and the “less is more” sensibility of contemporary folk music. Songs like “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is colored by clean, reverby jazz guitar chords and piano, with the drums set to “brushes”, with some angelic background singers. Then we have Bob Dylan singing.

It seems unfair to talk about this album without talking about Bob Dylan’s singing. Again, being totally opposite a fan of Dylan as what I am of Johnny Cash, I know next to nothing about the man or what life has done to him, but I will tell you that it has left him with a voice that sounds something like a chainsaw perpetually trying to start, and he has a lot of the same intonations, too. I will admit, even as someone who appreciates “off” singing, it is next to impossible for me to take this kind of music seriously when Dylan’s got a voice that would make Harvey Fierstein stop and offer him a cough drop. It should thus be no surprise that this is my very favorite Christmas album, not just for its sheer impossibility, but because Dylan’s earnest, straight-forward, and absolutely ridiculous performance is the antidote to everything that currently upsets me about Christmas.

This whole focus on clean-cut consumerism that has ruined the holiday and turned the month of December into a perpetual joke is only getting worse as times go by and the economy gets worse. Maybe it’s my 5 solid years of retail selling that has opened my eyes to this, but it really is a problem. From literally the day after Thanksgiving, when we’re all parked outside of stores waiting for cheap laptops and “early bird” deals, to the day after Christmas when we’re sluggishly cleaning up decorations (or leaving them there until August, why not), the entire month just runs on auto-pilot. We have twice as much traffic, often twice as much work to do, and try as you might, you can not escape the Christmas music. It’s so robotic and soulless, it’s no small wonder that the suicide rate tends to spike just before the big pay-off.

This album serves well as a reminder that this music used to actually be music, and Dylan inserting his classiness into the music and doing his best, with a voice that sounds like it was designed by a joint venture between Pall Mall and Cuisinart, for a genuine love of the music, and without accepting a penny for his troubles (all royalties go to an anti-starvation charity, awwww), strips the gloss away and adds just a glimmer, albeit a fleeting one, of life into a holiday that needs it desperately. Hence, this is still not music I’ll be listening to in March, but next time December rolls around, perhaps I’ll be shut in and will once again avoid the retail rush (my temporary joblessness has allowed me to sit out of this holiday retail season for the first time in half a decade), and will spin this album again and feel the warmth of what Christmas is all about, and that is Bob Dylan, aging folk icon, croaking his way clumsily through “Hark, The Herald Ages Sing”. I fully plan on being very drunk at this point.

If all of that isn’t enough of a testament to this album being not so bad, check out the video to “Must Be Santa“, featuring Bob Dylan looking like a cross between Tom Petty and Tom Waits. I legitimately love this song and video, especially the line “Who laughs this way, Ho Ho Ho”, man that kills me.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

*I have rectified this, by the way, because on the same ticket as this album, I purchased Dylan’s most famous album, Highway 61 Revisited, and will be enjoying that once I get back to Austin.


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Johnny Cash – Orange Blossom Special

I hesitated at first to write much about Johnny Cash on this blog, mainly because I didn’t want to reveal just how obsessed with the Man In Black I really am. Fact is, there’s not much else I can do to deny it. According to my profile, since October 4th when I got my Zune, I have listened to Johnny Cash over 713 times, which averages out to about 6 songs every single day. Also, since I have about 30 albums of his (if you count the box sets for The Complete Sun Recordings, Unearthed, At Folsom Prison, and At San Quentin as one album each), it’s a matter of course that I should write about them here.

Today’s album is actually one of the first I ever obtained, the 2002 re-issue of Orange Blossom Special:

Gol'dern it, where DID I put them keys?

Orange Blossom Special fits into the whole Johnny Cash legacy as being one of the string of really successful mid-60’s albums he did for Columbia, when he was essentially on fire, starting right around the album Ring Of Fire: The Best Of Johnny Cash and ending up somewhere in the 70’s. Speaking of fire, the year of this album’s release, 1965, was also the year when Cash’s truck accidentally caused a forest fire, for which Cash was sued by the government, making him the first and possibly only person to be sued for started a forest fire.

All right, on to the album. It starts with the title track, which would become a hit that Johnny would use for most of the rest of his career, and as I mentioned in the At San Quentin album, it features a two-harmonica solo that is really fun to watch (not so bad to listen to as well). It also features a bit of dialogue between Johnny and some really old guy which, according to my dad, was quite the catch-phrase:

Man: Say man, when you goin’ back to Florida?
Cash: When am I going to Florida? I don’t know, don’t reckon I ever will
Man: Ain’t you worried about getting your nourishment in New York?
Cash: Weeelll I don’t care if I do-da-do-da-do-da-do-da-do-da-do

I really like it myself.

The next song is one of my absolute favorites of Cash, a cover of “Long Black Veil”, written by people I have no idea about and am too lazy to research. It’s about a man who is hung for a crime he didn’t commit, but wouldn’t give an alibi at the trial because he’d “Been in the arms of my best friend’s wife”, and the chorus goes:

She walks these hills in a long black veil
She visits my grave when the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows but me

It’s a great song and typically Johnny performed it by himself in concerts, which added to the isolated feel of the song. Quite a stunning effect.

The first of three Bob Dylan-penned songs on the album is “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, which is one of the more popular duets Johnny did with future wife June Carter. One thing Johnny Cash always did well was songs about disenchanted lovers, and he’s in top form on this particular track. The song also features mariachi horns, so beware if you have allergies.

The next song is “The Wall”, which is one that probably became more popular after At Folsom Prison, since it’s a prison song. It’s a great song about a prisoner who tries to escape from jail, with consequences strikingly consistent with Johnny Cash songs of this nature.

Then we have another Bob Dylan song, probably one of his most famous since it’s one of the very few I actually know, “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)”. In fact, Johnny’s version is better than Dylan’s, but this is one of the very few times when I feel like it’s not really Johnny’s song, which is probably why he later took the same melody and wrote a much better song called “Understand Your Man”. Such a move might be considered illegal these days, but Johnny Cash was very upfront about whatever music he stole from, heck even “Folsom Prison Blues” isn’t an original tune.

One thing that’s noticeably slim on Orange Blossom Special would be actual Johnny Cash-penned songs. The middle of the album contains 1 of the 2 original songs, “You Wild Colorado”, which is kind of a tribute to one of America’s greatest rivers which doubles as a love-lost song. It doesn’t stick around long, at 1 minute and 50 seconds, but it’s a nice song either way.

Then the third of the Dylan songs (also covered by Jeff Buckley many decades later) comes up, “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind”, which is a pretty good song, and kind of echoes the previously-mentioned disenchanted feel of the previous songs. This one feels much more genuine I think, but that might be because I have never heard the original. The song also features a bouncy saxophone solo, so again people with allergic reactions to horns may take caution and the proper medication.

The next song is what I would consider kind of bizarre. It’s called “When It’s Springtime In Alaska (It’s 40 Below)”, and is another duet with June Carter. It’s kind of a love song that ends badly, as he dances with “red headed Lil” in a saloon in Alaska, but then founds out that she’s “Big Ed’s wife to be” and he kills the singer with a knife, the thing that weirds me out about this song is that June sings the character of Lil and is just completely unaffected by any of it. I dunno, maybe you’ll just have to give it a listen. It makes a lot more sense when Johnny sings it by himself, which I’ve only ever heard on his Personal File compilation.

We then come to the second Johnny Cash original, “All Of God’s Children Ain’t Free”, which is a good semi-political song which serves as one of the many explanations as to why Johnny Cash never adopted the glitzy honky-tonk country singer image, so in essence it’s one of the songs about why Johnny Cash is way better than all other country singers. He’d later drive this point home with the song Man In Black, the album for which I don’t even think has ever come out on CD. Tragic waste, that.

The only track I’m not crazy about any time that Cash or anyone else sings it is “Danny Boy”, which is at the tail-end of the album and is preceded by about a 2 minute spoken intro, which is kind of odd for a 3 minute song. The spoken word part is great though because Johnny does an irish accent for it, and well he’s not known for his accent work. I will say I am a bit more fond of the version of Danny Boy that appears on American IV: The Man Comes Around, not least for the reason that there is a beautiful church organ in that version.

The next song is a cover of Maybelle Carter’s “Wildwood Flower”, which is nice because it’s probably the first “hit” country song ever, but it’s kind of weird to hear Johnny Cash singing it, since it was written by a woman from the viewpoint of a woman, and that’s always awkward to hear when it’s been turned around to be about a man, no matter how expertly. In this particular version Johnny Cash’s woman calls him her flower, see what I mean?

Finally, we come to a traditional gospel song called “Amen”, and it’s a good song, but probably better suited for live shows, as it is kind of stilted for the recorded version, but then again, a lot of Cash’s earliest gospel songs seemed that way. I guess it’s because he got so dang good at them after he kicked the drug habit, that it overshadows his previous efforts. Maybe I’m just too picky about my gospel music? Either way, it’s a good song.

There are some bonuses on the 2001 re-issue, most importantly “Engine 143” which is a Carter Family song about a train-wreck. It’s significant mostly for the reason that, in 2003 when Johnny Cash played his final show, it was at the Carter Family Fold and he ended with this song. Johnny Cash loved train songs, as his song “Like The 309” is the last song he ever wrote. The ending of the song, and thus the last words that Johnny sang in public was “Nearer, my God, to Thee”.

Now please excuse me as I wipe away a single tear.


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Johnny Cash – At San Quentin

For some reason, when I started this blog, I told myself I wouldn’t talk about any live albums. Just today I asked myself why not? After all, they’re still albums, and I’ve been listening to a particular one all day to get me through a 13 hour day at work:

Johnny hears the train a-comin', but if he'd just look to his left he'd SEE it comin' too.

This is the second live album Johnny Cash recorded in a prison, 2 years after his most famous album At Folsom Prison, and I quite prefer At San Quentin for a few reasons. For one, the instruments are in tune most of the time, which was a big problem with At Folsom Prison. For two, the songs are much tighter and performed better, and for three, the dialogue and audience response is much better. This is possibly because the act for Folsom was a bit more rehearsed (the Legacy Edition box set of At Folsom Prison contains the concerts done on both days and there are a lot of lines repeated from the first show in the second), and even the set-list for San Quentin was barely written, in fact Johnny says at one point,

I tell you what, the show is being recorded and televised for England, and they told me you gotta do this song, you gotta do that song, you gotta stand like this and walk like this, and I don’t get it man. I’m here to do what I wanna do and what you want me to do. So whaddya wanna hear?!

Really, all of the dialogue has a more loose, rebellious and even mischievous feel to it, and that conveys in the album really well. Not to take anything away from At Folsom Prison, it’s just a personal preference of mine. Truthfully, the song “Folsom Prison Blues” sounds better to me on At Folsom Prison.

So, how could it possibly take all day to listen to a live album, you ask? Well, I recently purchased the Legacy Edition box set, which contains the entire concert. There is a slimmer edition that is called rather erroneously “At San Quentin: The Complete Concert”, since it adds 8 more tracks to the original 10 song release, but that edition leaves out 4 songs, and the Legacy Edition even contains the 3 opening acts, so yes… it’s long.

In fact, the album starts with Carl Perkins playing his song that made Elvis famous, “Blue Suede Shoes”, and then vocal quartet The Statler Brothers come out and sing a pretty good song. Then June Carter Cash, who had just recently married Johnny Cash, came out and did a song with The Carter Family (their most famous, “Wildwood Flower”) and recited a poem she wrote. It’s probably about 25 minutes or so before Johnny even takes the stage with his signature “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

He opens with one of my favorite train songs, “The Wreck Of The Old 97” where he does this “woo woo” thing with his voice that actually sounds like a train whistle. I have no idea how he does that, but it’s great nonetheless.

It would really be useless to talk about how well he does each song, because it would probably take several thousand more words than I’ve limited myself to, but some particular highlights include the following:

Folsom Prison Blues” is the only song I ever knew by Johnny Cash before I took an active interest in him, so it remains my favorite song he does. This particular version is notable because it’s the first time he played it on a recording with then-new guitarist Bob Wootton, who was a life-long fan of Cash’s and when the original guitarist Luther Perkins died in a fire only 7 months before At San Quentin, it turned out that Bob Wootton knew every single note of the lead guitar parts of the Tennessee Three, so he was a shoe-in. He’s a great guitarist, despite his tendency to play a distinct extra note in the minimalist lead guitar part of “Folsom Prison Blues” that I kind of have mixed feelings about.

One highlight of course is the string of hits that are Johnny Cash staples, “I Walk The Line”, “Long Black Veil”, “Give My Love To Rose”, and “Orange Blossom Special”, all of which sound excellent. One particular thing about “Orange Blossom Special” that might not be apparent from simply listening to it is that Johnny plays a pair of “Harmonicae” for the lines between verses, and switches them with the chord changes, which is fairly amusing to see.

Johnny also sings a couple of duets with June Carter, “Darlin’ Companion” and “Jackson“, and he sings with the whole Carter family on a song called “Break My Mind” which was one of the songs that was cut from every version except the Legacy Edition. It’s too bad because that’s a really good song. I think the sound might have been a little off so perhaps that’s the reason.

The middle of the album, which contains the “prison songs”, is probably the best part of the album. It starts with a prisoner-penned song called “I Don’t Know Where I’m Bound” which is a very spiritual number, followed up by Johnny’s own “Starkville County Jail”, which is an account of an actual night Johnny spent in prison for picking flowers in Starkville City, Mississippi. He talks about it before playing the actual song, and after that song he plays a tune he had written specifically for San Quentin. The excitement of the prisoners to be hearing this wonderfully spiteful song is crazy to listen to, I actually don’t think I’ve heard as much earnest and loud applause as when he finished that song. He did it so well he played it again immediately afterwards! The interesting thing there is that the crowd is practically silent for the second run, not because the novelty wore off that quickly, I think they just wanted to hear every single word and make damn sure it stuck in their heads so they’d be singing it for the next few years.

There’s really no way you can top a song like that in a place like that, so Johnny presses on with a tune he wrote with Bob Dylan called “Wanted Man” (which would years later be re-done on a Mercury Records album called, well, Wanted Man), and then takes a break while Carl Perkins plays a really hot instrumental called “On The Outside Looking In” which was cut out of the non-expensive versions).

The next song is the debut of one of the few “joke” songs Johnny ever did, but it’s such an absorbing story that you hardly think of it as such. “A Boy Named Sue” is one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs because it’s put together so well, lyrically speaking. The crowd really loves the song, too, even though they seemed to not take Johnny seriously when he announced earlier in the show that he’d be doing a song called “A Boy Named Sue”.

After that song and another cut song called “Blistered”, the show slows down with several gospel numbers such as “(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley”, “Less Of Me” performed by the Statler Brothers, “He Turned The Water Into Wine”, “Daddy Sang Bass” (which Carl Perkins also wrote), and “The Old Account Was Settled”, pausing briefly to play a really good rendition of “Ring Of Fire”.

The album closes out with a Medley where each of the performers sing a line or two from the “hit” songs, and Johnny himself closes with some lines from “The Rebel Johnny Yuma”. I actually really dig the ending to this album, I guess after listening to the thing for nearly 2 hours it’s kind of nostalgic in a way.

It took Johnny Cash years to convince the record company that recording an album live inside of a prison would be a great idea, and I am glad his message got through. I really do love At Folsom Prison and I’m sure will be talking about that one later on, but At San Quentin is the live album I tend to listen to whenever I feel like hearing the quintessential “live” Cash. Though I really love the “Legacy Edition” box set of the performance (it includes the DVD of the English documentary they mention from which the Youtube videos were extracted), I’d say if you pay a fraction of the cost to get “The Complete Concert” edition, you won’t be missing out on too much. As for me, I am an absolute sucker for special-edition anything, and I love all the extra banter included with the cut songs, so I am very happy with this version of the album.

I’m not happy, however, with how late it took me to write this entry. I had to work from 7am until 8pm so that’s why it’s late. Oh well, until tomorrow!


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Leonard Cohen – Songs Of Leonard Cohen

Some days you wake up, possibly after sleeping way too much, and the day outside is cold, gray and hopeless, and you have nothing to do but sit inside and let the day just go by and reflect on life, of past love and failures over a cup of coffee. This is the perfect time to listen to early Leonard Cohen albums:

I wonder how his album sales would have been affected if he had a big, goofy grin in this photo?

I’m not sure if it’s just Cohen’s records or if it was the entire 60’s folk scene, but there’s an undeniable relaxing quality about them. This particular album (Cohen’s debut), was put together in an unusual way by mainly just being Leonard on guitar and singing, and other instruments would come in, but would sometimes leave at seemingly random intervals, almost like you were dreaming of them while lost in the spell the song has cast over you. It gives the whole thing a really relaxed feel that conveys very well.

The album starts off with “Suzanne“, which conveniently sets up many of the elements to the overall album in one nice little package. First, the classical guitar and his voice are both played softly, so soft that it’s almost hypnotic. Second, female backup vocals, which he continued using even after his style of sound changed from “folk” to “???”. Third, those masterful lyrics.

There really shouldn’t be any surprise that Cohen’s lyrics are pure poetry. The main reason for this is that he was a poet and an internationally-known novelist long before he ever recorded this debut album at age 33. Many of the songs, including “Suzanne”, had been covered before the album ever came out (by Judy Collins), and continue to be covered (James Taylor being the most recent).

The fourth recurring theme set up in “Suzanne” is the subject matter that Cohen touches on the most: religion, loneliness, and sexual themes. These themes continue right into the next song, “Master Song“, a song about, as Leonard said in a live performance, “the Trinity… we’ll leave that up to the scholars.”

Then we have “Winter Lady“, which is apparently the perfect song to match up with a Clint Eastwood movie (at least that’s what Youtube thinks).

One of my favorite songs on the album is “The Stranger Song“, and indeed that was probably one of his bigger hits on the thing. I linked specifically to a televised performance of the song to show that Cohen has a particular style of playing guitar that he revisits in some of my other favorite songs. It’s a classical method of finger-picking that has the player hitting 3 notes on every beat. It can be incredibly hard to play using that method unless you drain ALL the expression and personality from your face.

The recording method I mentioned previously, where other instruments are brought in and then go away sporadically is first visited in “Sisters Of Mercy” (I don’t know why Youtube feels the need to put his music against random photographs but oh well), which is a song about, well I actually think quoting Leonard would be better, this is from when he played and recorded a concert in 1968:

When I was in Edmonton, about a year and a half ago, I was greeted at the airport by 2 young girls who were wearing mini-skirts, and they said to me that they had introduced the mini-skirt to Edmonton… and they took very, very good care of me, and I wrote this song for them, and it’s called The Sisters Of Mercy.

It should maybe be said at this point that Leonard Cohen has always been quite the ladies’ man (a theme he touches on lyrically in later albums).

The next song is probably the most random as far as instruments coming and going, “So Long, Marianne“, which is a much more jaunty song than the rest, and in fact could be noted as the high point of the whole album. I believe this one, also, has been covered quite often, but I could be wrong and too lazy to research on that one.

The next song, “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” is a song that was taken from a poem he had written earlier. Actually I think that’s true for most, if not all, of the songs on the album, so forget I said that. Honestly, I think a Youtube user in the comments to the video I just linked put it best when he said “This song is the business”. The business indeed, stranger, the business indeed. Incidentally, this particular song introduces the Jews’ Harp, a bouncy-sounding instrument often used in folk and western music, which would become a staple of Cohen’s next album.

“Stories Of The Street” is another excellent song, and features some of the best vocal melody on the album, at least in my opinion. I also quite enjoy the acoustic guitar arpeggio going on in the background against Leonard’s own strumming. The song also features a move I quite enjoy in songs, the end of the chorus ends on a major key version of the song’s minor key and then switches back to minor. I’m not sure how to better explain that, you’ll just have to listen to the song even though Youtube only has amateur covers for videos of it.

Speaking of minor keys and fancy guitar work, “Teachers” is an excellent example of both. It features more of the classical finger-picking that “The Stranger Song” introduced, and the lyrics are a little more metaphorical than the rest, which I am always drawn to. The song moves through a story about the author that has him searching for the teacher of the heart, and features really neat lines like:

I met a man who’d lost his mind
In some lost place I had to find
“Follow me”, the wise man said
But he walked behind

You can read all the lyrics on that Youtube video I just linked to, especially if you want to see ridiculous screen-wipes!

The final song on the album proper is “One Of Us Can Not Be Wrong”, which actually might be my favorite of the whole bunch, especially for showing car commercials against. The lyrics have to do with a very complex love-story, but despite its sad melody, the whole thing seems like a joke told with a pefectly straight face, in a way that you aren’t supposed to know whether to laugh or not. In particular, my favorite stanza is:

An eskimo showed me a movie
He’d recently taken of you
The poor man could hardly stop shaking
His lips and his fingers were blue
I suppose that he froze when the wind took your clothes
And I guess he just never got warm
But you look there so nice, in your blizzard of ice
Oh please let me come into the storm

I don’t know about you, but I consider that beautiful AND hilarious.

The deluxe re-issue of the album I got features 2 bonus songs, “Store Room” and “Blessed Is The Memory”, the latter of which I don’t care for quite as much. “Store Room” is great, though, it’s another song that features the 3-note chop of “The Stranger Song”, with a jazzy electric guitar playing against, and there are even some drums! The lyrics are about not being able to sleep, certainly a topic I can get behind. I’m really glad this song was included in the bonus tracks, as I would have hated to go without hearing it.

Now I feel like my lazy depression has lifted, and another dark day is saved by Leonard Cohen.

Also, apologies for the length of yesterday’s entry, I should probably stop myself in future before hitting the 2000-word mark.


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Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left

It’s dark and cold outside, I’m up before the sun (had to be, by 8pm yesterday I had been up for 31 hours straight so I just went to bed “early”) and I’m down to my last cup of hot cocoa. It’s time to talk about Nick Drake.

Heh, that kid out there fell off his bike, what a loser

It’s fortunate that I didn’t decide to do this project about a year ago when I was obsessed with Nick Drake. I might have written 122 entries about each of his albums, and still find space to write about the other posthumous releases. Watch out, though, I might still!

If you don’t know already, Nick Drake became a really big deal in music, rather, his story did, about 30 years after he died tragically. He was a young man of 21 when he recorded his debut, Five Leaves Left, over a period of about a year in 1969.

I’m not really a big authority on English folk music from the 60’s-70’s, but I do enjoy it so. What makes Nick Drake’s recording stand out to me is the pure, untouched quality of his songwriting and guitar. The recording method implemented for all 3 of his albums was to emphasize his extremely precise method of finger-picking and bring his vocals to the front of the mix, without any reverb (the same method was used to record Leonard Cohen’s early albums, which believe me I will be talking about at length in the future). The result is that you can easily imagine yourself in the room where the songs are being recorded, and yet there is still room for a small orchestra of other instruments, and even an electric guitar on exactly one track.

That track is the opener, “Time Has Told Me“, an introspective love song that simultaneously seems to have a jazz and country feel to it. Either way it’s very strong, and establishes Nick’s guitar-playing very well, despite the presence of piano and electric guitar, both of which play a supporting role. The song features no percussion, as it was apparently decided that Nick’s guitar held enough rhythm for everyone. The lyrics are, as with a lot of Nick’s songs, optimistic while dealing with the struggles of a world gone wrong:

And time has told me
Not to ask for more
Someday our ocean
Will find its shore.

Then comes “River Man“, possibly my favorite song on the album. The first thing to note about this song is the time signature. If you don’t know a lot about music, the rhythm of most songs can be divided into 4 beats every measure (you can follow music by counting 1-2-3-4 rhythmically) which is called 4/4, well River Man is in 5/4, meaning you have to count to 5 every measure. I can tell you for a fact that this feat is impossible for a lot of musicians. Nick not only works with this signature, but he incorporates the vocals in a way that seem to linger around with that extra beat, making the whole thing sound dream-like in a way. Quite relaxing, particularly given the second thing you might notice about the song, the sea of strings the song floats around on. The sound of the song is perfect for the lyrical themes, since we’re dealing with rivers and flowing and such.

Then comes “Three Hours“, a song which is kind of lost on me lyrically since it seems to be literary, maybe even based on an existing story. The arrangement is a really good finger-picking rhythm (that changes towards the end) and upright bass that I don’t quite approve of.  It seems to meander a lot, but it does the job of staying in the background, at least. There is also some hand-percussion going on which also hangs out in the background, which was also present in some earlier demo versions that can be found, one of which also includes a flute. I am very glad they didn’t go with a flute on this particular track.

If you enjoyed the presence of strings on “River Man”, then you may also like the 4th song, “Way To Blue“, since aside from the vocals, is all strings! It’s a lovely re-interpretation of a piano part Nick originally wrote for this song, but apparently wouldn’t have gone well with piano, so any instrumentation by Nick was eschewed.

The next song, however, features what I think is some of Nick’s best guitar-work. “Day Is Done” was written with the rather chipper lyrical theme of “oh god everyone’s doomed” and the strings that accompany the guitar in this track emphasize that. The theme is amended however in the next song, “‘Cello Song“, which is a bit more hopeful, despite the presence of lines like:

But while the earth sinks to its grave
You sail to the sky
On the crest of a wave.

The instrument spoken of in the title is very intentionally spelled ‘cello with the apostrophe because Nick apparently wanted to stay true to his old English roots, as “cello” is actually short for “violoncello”, and the abbreviation used to be ‘cello, though the apostrophe is nowadays omitted. There, of course, is a ‘cello in the song that plays a line that Nick sings, and the two interplay with each other in a very catchy way.

The next song, “The Thoughts Of Mary Jane“, is one that I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about. It’s a lovely song, and lyrically you could almost think it’s not just a euphemism on marijuana, but I’m not crazy about the flute that plays the melody. I’m not sure how I could have done it differently if it were up to me, but I still would have. The song well establishes a more colorful mood, which makes the next song feel quite welcome.

Man In A Shed“, a jazzy number incorporating piano and Danny Thompson’s upright bass work (much improved from “Three Hours”, I feel), is the high point, lyrically and melodically, of the album. The idea is of a poor man trying to attract a well-off (at least in his opinion) girl, though the shed and house could be allegorical for states of mind, the shed being depression and the house being a normal life. It does rather remind me of someone in a depressed state of mind trying to make the best of things despite it all.

If I had to think of the songs I have found to be the most prophetic for the author, one of the first songs that would come into my head would be “Fruit Tree“. The song is remarkable, as it is about being famous only after you’re dead and buried, which is not a new story, but it’s exactly what happened to Nick Drake.

Safe in the womb
Of an everlasting night
You find the darkness can
Give the brightest light.
Safe in your place deep in the earth
That’s when they’ll know what you were really worth.

Quite a low note to end an album on, for sure. Thankfully the album picks up once more with “Saturday Sun“, which features some interesting vibraphone work and Nick himself on piano. The song ends with the line:

So Sunday sat in the Saturday sun
And wept for a day gone by.

Which seems appropriate, since the song itself sounds less like the definite end to the album, and more of an epilogue to “Fruit Tree” that hints at the approach of another album. Indeed another album was made, Bryter Layter, and the final song on that album is called “Sunday”, so perhaps that was intentional, or maybe more of a connection that I imagined. Either way, Five Leaves Left ends as it started, with the passage of time, which is really the only constant in an unpredictable life.

Indeed, Nick’s life was unpredictable, and it ended far too soon. I’ll probably touch more on his story whenever I get around to talking about his other two albums, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon. For now, however, I will say that, no matter what the story of the author or the album, Five Leaves Left is a really good album. I have listened to it in the past year or two more times than I care to think about (there was a time when I listened to it daily), which makes it actually a lot harder to write about. Maybe I should make another 122 entries about it!

…or not. Either way, my cocoa is gone now and the sun has come out to hide behind some rain clouds. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s entry where I’ll most likely talk about an album!


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