Sunday, February 10, 2013

Nurse the Hate: The Never Ending Johnny Cash Box Set

I am fully committed to seeing this Johnny Cash project through.  The thing about this box set that is really interesting is that it seems like it will never end.  The records just keep coming.  I've listened to 54 of these damn things in a row for God's sake!  Most of the ones from the late 70s and early 80s I have never even seen much less heard before.  For the most part Johnny Cash sounds like Johnny Cash while the surrounding fashion of "the hit sound" changes around him.  That makes it particularly interesting as I go through these 1978-1983 records which sound as horribly dated as you feared they might.  Sometimes I cringe as badly hearing these as I would at looking at photos of myself from My Awkward Period of 1978-2009.  The past is not always pretty, but it did lead us to today.  What are you gonna do?

Disc 46 I Would Like To See You Again is when Cash gets categorized as working as part of the Outlaw Country movement, which is kind of ridiculous as he was never really country and always set his own artistic course anyway.  Still, because Waylon Jennings makes a couple of appearances, the Outlaw Country tag gets applied.  Whatever.  This record has some pretty good songs on it ("I Would Like To See You Again" and "Lately" in particular) but is still marred by that yacht rock late seventies production.  If you dig the way Christopher Cross records sound, this is right up your alley.  Disc 47 Gone Girl once again finds Nashville trying to make Cash sound "contemporary".  It seems so obvious now, but the move would have been to have Cash record songs he liked with his core band and been done with it.  There's an OK version of the Stones "No Expectations" on this, and he makes "The Gambler" sound much cooler than Kenneth Rogers did.  "It Comes And Goes" is a really nice heartbreak original.  If you want to hear Cash do cajun, "Cajun Born" is not as cringe worthy as the idea sounds.  Disc 48 Silver is a tough listen.  "I'll Say It's True" with George Jones is pretty good.  "I'm Gonna Sit On The Porch And Pick My Old Guitar" is a nice little original.  I really hate the production and the the over instrumentation on this record.  Late 70s Nashville is about as bad an aesthetic as you can imagine.  There was so much bad taste it must have been overwhelming.  You can almost smell the bad imitation leather shoes when you open this.  The same people that think home decorations available at Cracker Barrel are really nice have the same basic taste as the ones that arranged the songs on this record.  The worst version of "Cocaine Blues" conceivable is on this.  He got a #2 hit with a version of "Ghost Riders In The Sky" that is terrible too.  1979 was a tough time in music.  If you doubt that statement, listen to Silver and Disc 49 Rockabilly Blues.  You would think that a Johnny Cash record focused on rockabilly would be great.  It would be too if they actually recorded any rockabilly.  The limp dick versions of rockabilly on this record are embarrassing.  His version of "Without Love" is maybe the only keeper on this.  If he had recorded these same songs with the Stray Cats in 1980, this thing would have been killer.  Instead the 37 studio ringers that play as steady and sanitized as any studio stiff make this a boring paint by numbers record.  Disc 50 Classic Christmas is exactly what you need if what you need is Johnny Cash singing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" along with an orchestra and chorus.  This isn't a real go-to record in February.  Maybe I will circle back around next Christmas.  Disc 51 The Baron is Johnny's version of a Kenny Rogers record.  Maybe I'm crazy, but I really like this record.  It's pretty slick, but the songs and performances are so good it carries through.  "The Baron", "A Ceiling Four Walls and A Floor", "Hey Hey Train"and "Chattanooga City Limit Sign" are all pretty great.  "Thanks To You" is one of his traditional "you crushed my heart, but fuck you baby it turns out I'm Johnny Cash and you're not" songs.  In a bleak period of his recorded career, this is a real highlight.  Disc 52 The Survivors is from a live show in Stuttgart with Johnny on stage with Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.  This again proves the theory that supergroups are rarely that super.  Each one of these guys is great on his own, but their individual performance styles are not very complimentary.  Don't get me wrong, it would have been awesome to have seen this show live.  I can see myself with a pils in my hand saying, "Look at that!  Look at those three guys.  Right there.  No way."  Then afterwards I would have told anyone who wasn't there how awesome it was since they weren't there.  After the record came out and it turned out that "Going Down The Road Feelin Bad" and maybe "I Saw The Light" were the only really good things on it, I would have blamed a bad recording.  I think this is like one of those pictures you take of a party.  While you remember the fun of party when you see the photo, everyone else just sees a picture of some people mugging for the camera holding beers.  You shoulda been there man!  Disc 53 The Adventures of Johnny Cash is worth noting that despite being maybe the greatest vocalist of the century, Cash's version of Shaver's "I Been To Georgia On A Fast Train" pales in comparison to the vocally challenged Billy Joe Shaver's own version(s).   This is horribly produced as a whole.  It sounds like Cash recorded the vocals months after the basic tracks.  It's like he is out of time on some of them, like the mix is off.  This must have been a record he had to do for contract fulfillment.  The songs aren't that good.  His performances sound tossed off.  Not his finest hour.  Disc 54 Johnny 99 is a disaster.  On the surface Cash recording a couple of Springsteen's songs from Nebraska sounds like a good start.  I will even give you that "Highway Patrolman" is OK.  However, this shows you in one document what was wrong with music in the 80s.  The sheer amount of synthetic sounds on this record and the over hatched layers of stiff tracks is unreal.  It's hard to believe that Cash sat at the control booth board and nodded his head as this came back at him during playback.  "Yep.  We nailed it here Brian."  This has the same feel as some of those terrible Dylan records from the period like "Saved" or "Empire Burlesque".  That mushy Sly and Robbie rhythm with drums that sound like bass notes is all over this.  It's really hard to explain why this happened.  What sort of mass delusion made all of us think that music should sound this way?  Why was it a good idea to try and use electronics to try and sound like drums and pianos when perfectly good drums and pianos could have just been miked?  With the exception of low budget punk records from that period, is there anything that sounds good from 1982?    


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