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Believe in Him

Johnny Cash
Unearthed (American Recordings)

Arriving as an appropriate epitaph, Unearthed may be the final stamp on Johnny Cash’s brilliant career. Released just after his death and toiled over for his last few months with producer Rick Rubin, Unearthed compiles 64 hitherto unreleased songs and 15 favorites from their 10-year collaboration. The Cash-and-Rubin story, swiftly becoming rock legend, was realized out of a simple plan: Stick an age-old performer in front of a mike, let his confirmed mortality linger with grace rather than regret, and don’t stop until you’ve made the best album of his career. That idea came to with 1994’s American Recordings, winning Cash his first album-related Grammy. Although Rubin later would throw a band into the mix, they always kept Cash’s authority as the central presence in every song they recorded.

Packaged as two black cloth-bound books—“Music” and “Text”—Unearthed manages to affirm even more than before that Johnny Cash was the absolute king of song. Disc One focuses on Cash’s and Rubin’s earliest American sessions: raw, solo renditions of country classics, traditionals and self-penned songs. The second and third discs predominantly feature full-band performances (mostly with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers), covering material from artists as varied as Steve Earle, Cat Stevens, Dolly Parton and Bob Marley—including a compelling duet on the latter’s “Redemption Song” with Joe Strummer.

It was mostly in his later years that Cash took to primarily singing covers, brought in by either Rubin or himself. With covers, Cash transformed a merely reproductive songform into something unusually redemptive, lifting a song to new emotional heights unlikely to have been conceived by the original author. For example, on American IV: The Man Comes Around, his last album proper, Cash sang Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” to be about seeing the face of God, rather than romance, for the first time. The standout cover is surely Neil Young’s Native American lament “Pochahantas,” with Tom Petty’s odd Mellotron lifting the song into the absolutely surreal.

Cash considered the material on the fourth disc, “My Mother’s Hymn Book,” fit to be released as an album itself; in fact, he called it his favorite of all the albums he ever did. In June 2000, Cash went into the cabin studio on his “compound,” armed with nothing but a guitar, his engineer and his mother’s hymnbook. Sounding like a 300-year-old angel singing from the bottom of a well, Cash delivers perhaps the most beautiful music he has ever done. As Rubin has said of working with someone of such impassioned faith, “What you believed didn’t matter so much, because you were in the presence of someone who really believed, and that felt good, and it made you believe really in him [more] than anything else.”

Along with ex-ceptional liner notes with song-by-song rundowns from Cash and Rubin, the box also includes a “Best of Cash on American” disc, featuring their 15 favorite tracks from previous albums, including “Delia’s Gone,” “Southern Accent,” “Bird on a Wire,” Beck’s “Rowboat,” and the now-infamous version of NiN’s “Hurt.”

Johnny Cash’s music is surely more for the heart than the mind. The songs on Unearthed, like all of his songs, don’t heed complexity or strong musicianship per se. Rather they center on the nitty-gritty realities of human experience—of misery and hurt—but also on glorifying the well-deserved good that eventually comes, like love, faith and transcendence. It’s what makes Johnny Cash’s music so satisfying. It’s why nobody ever changes the station when he comes on the radio. And it’s also what ultimately makes these 77 tracks so easily digestible: Cash’s insistent gut-meaningfulness somehow blurs the literal differences between each song, fixing it all into one giant meal, and making this box an essential listening experience.

—John Suvannavejh

Monty Alexander with Ernest Ranglin
Rocksteady (Telarc)

Rocksteady is pianist Monty Alexander’s tribute to the the late ’60s and early ’70s heyday of ska. Alexander is from Jamaica and came up through the club scene there before relocating to the United States and embarking on a career in jazz. A vital component throughout this album is guitarist Ernest Ranglin, who played on many of the key recordings produced by Coxson Dodd (including Toots & the Maytals, Derrick Herriot, Roland Alfonso and many others).

The dozen tracks pay homage to the era’s key artists and composers. The album opens with the spry fun of Dave and Ansel Collins’ “Double Barrel,” one of the first Jamaican songs to become a hit in America, and closes with Bob Marley’s richly emotive “Redemption Song.” In between they play everything from “Confucius” by the Skatellites to “The Israelites” by Desmond Dekker. The sextet lock into each number, eschewing overdubs for an essential live groove.

—David Greenberger

The Coal Palace Kings
Live at the Garden Grill (Kranepool)

If the unlikely superlative “Albany rock institution” were ever bestowed, Howard Glassman would be on the short list. Beyond leading the Coal Palace Kings down that long rocked-up-country road, he’s been booking great bands in this area for years—back to the Bogie’s days and now as the longtime Valentine’s auteur who brings folks as diverse as Guided by Voices, the Supersuckers and ’50s country legend Charlie Louvin. Between his booking and his own band, he’s the main reason I rarely need to leave town to catch a show.

But back to CPK: Bands may come and go and look for that road to success out of town, but the Coal Palace Kings have made playing good-time music to local drinkers their idiom. They may take it on the road occasionally, but their bread and butter is being an Albany band. And one of the quintessential Albany experiences (Fodor’s take note) is when they pack themselves into a fake-wood-paneled corner of the Garden Grill, get all loud and rootsy and engage in some tough-love patter with the bar regulars and visitors alike.

The best way to enjoy the Kings is still in the flesh, gutting out their odes to mechanics, vans and hard luck—but Live at the Garden Grill is a great backup. Guitarist Larry Winchester’s twanged-out tones cut like shards (take a gander at the brief, muscular statement that is the “Stoneytown” solo), and the rhythm section of Jeff Sohn and Don “Diego” Ackerman continue to slip versatility and nuance into a rugged template. This album is loud, rippin’ and a whole lot of fun. One warning, however: It may have you reaching for that warm can of Schaeffer long before the sun dips acceptably below the yard arm. But that’s a calculated risk—and I hear the Kings sound just as magnificent sober.

—Erik Hage

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