Monday, 10 November 2008

Johnny Cash "American Legends" (2008) (News, Views and Music 11)

An old favourite I’m Currently Grooving To: Johnny Cash “American legends” (compilation) “My name is Sue, how do you do?!?” As £3 3CD sets from Woolworths go, this is one of my better bargains of recent years. The man in black’s early catalogue is now out of copyright and turning up in the most haphazard of selections and running orders—and yet, despite the reputation of most cheap Woollies sets, worth a lot more than the price would suggest (the 3CD Small faces set is great value too if you don’t have this stuff already—and if you do there’s still one or two unreleased alternate mixes to be found. Ditto the Buddy Holly set, although there are too many of the Pick’s posthumous overdubbing sessions used over Buddy’s superior originals to make it a ‘classic’). Johnny Cash’s ballads haven't aged too well, but his Tennessee Three-led early rock and roll singles sound surprisingly fresh and contemporary, more so than most 1950s recordings. His own songs too are an under-rated mix of rockers and ballads known to everyone, which here include ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, ’I Walk The Line’, ‘Give My Love To Rose’ and (is this a mis-print because surely it’s Lonnie Donegan’s, although most books seem to agree that Johnny had something to do with the genesis of it) ‘Rock Island Line’. Add in a live version (but not the famous live San Quentin Prison version) of Cash’s most successful song ‘A Boy Named Sue’ and things are looking quite good for this little set.

All the best stuff seems to be on CD two however. There, Cash’s weak country ballads and gentle frivolous pop songs don’t get in the way of the album as often as they do on CDs 1 and 3. The band are able to pick up a bit more steam and the Tennessee Three finally get to develop their own style without having to be constrained by the hits and styles of the day (the band seem to be sleepwalking through standard teen stuff like ‘Straight A’s In Love’ and so too does the listener). Talking of building up steam, Cash is at his best on the live tracks towards the end of the second disc, especially set highlight ‘Orange Blossom Special’ which comes complete with train whistles, large dollops of Blues harmonica and train-like drumming that comes close to outdoing Keith Moon’s train impersonations on ’Quadrophenia’. All the things that work against Cash on the studio tracks and particularly B-sides — occasionally off-pitching vocals and a tendency to repeat his licks throughout several songs—comes alive on the stage, offering the Tennessee Three a chance to show off a bit of the ‘freedom’ they talk about in their songs. Most reviled moment: Johnny and June Carter Cash growling and squealing their way respectively through a version of classic duet ‘Jackson’. June’s usually much better than this—and why weren’t any of the many superior live recordings of this song used for the set instead?! Even so, for £3 this 2-hour set is a happy find. Overall rating: ♫♫♫♫♫♫ (6/10).


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