Monday, 15 December 2008

Johnny Cash "The Xmas Collection" (News, Views and Music 16)

“There’s a choir outside of my house singing ‘Silent Night’, for any little thing that’s gone wrong Christmas makes it right”

 “The Christmas Collection” (Johnny Cash, compilation first released in 2003 containing music recorded between 1963-1980)

R.I.P. Woolworths, beloved shop full of bargain CDs unavailable anywhere else. Survivor of almost a century of changing public tastes, numerous recessions (don’t belive a word of the press reports that are making out the credit crunch to be the ‘worst in living memory’, it’s not even matched the 1991 early 90s recession yet) and the poor sales of the Spice Girls Greatest Hits CD. Never more will cash-castrated music fans like myself hunt down your shelves for an exclusive bargain, never more will we find ourselves automatically drifting off to the Woollies shop doorway even though we are meant to be going somewhere else (hey, I can’t help it – I just feel this shop calling to me sometimes). How apt, then, that the last item I will probably buy in one of my favourites shops is one of the last reviewed for this year’s newsletters.

Alas, though, like many a cheap discounted Woollies CD, what we have is not so much a missing, neglected gem as a small handful of missing neglected gems nestling amongst several tracks that should have remained hidden. Johnny Cash has appeared in Woolworths more than most down the years, mainly because his early material is already out of copyright and cheap to re-issue and, alas, a quick catch-all of any artist’s early recorded-in-three-days repertoire is unlikely to be their greatest work. This set is slightly different, with the majority of Christmas-related songs released in the 1960s rather than the 50s and a couple dating from as late in the Man In Black’s career in 1980. What we get is a potpourri of Cash’s Christmas-themed records, including the poorly-received ‘Christmas Spirit’ (1963), the marginally more popular ‘Christmas and the Cash Family’ (1972) and a handful of flop singles. Christmas never seemed to suit the dark tones of Cash in the eyes of the public but Johnny never pretended to be a Perry Como at Christmas – what we get here are mainly dark cautionary tales told in a gravel voice, with a few up-tempo tracks to interrupt the flow.

None of these are among Cash’s best works, but then neither are most Christmas-themed records – what we get instead is affordable background music for when we wrap our presents and fall over trying to put an angel on the Christmas tree yet again, just like we did last year. The most interesting pieces are Cash’s own and a handful of these deserve to be better known – the bouncy set closer ‘That Christmassy Feeling’, the moody ‘Christmas As I Knew It’ and especially the brief but compelling ‘Who Kept The Sheep?’ sound the equal of many of the better-known (too well known?!) carols included here. Alas, the rest of the CD is Cash getting his tonsils round some particularly dreary arrangements of all the old suspects – ‘O Come All Ye Faithful, a particularly funeral ‘Joy To The World’, ‘Away In A Manger’ (which seems to have become ‘Away In A Mangle’ given Cash’s torturous vocal here), ‘It Came Upon A Midnight Clear’ – even the usually upbeat carols like ‘Little Drummer Boy’ and ‘Silent Night’ sound faintly depressing in their new setting here. A surprisingly sprightly ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ and the lesser known ‘Peace IN The Valley’ are easily the highlights of the usual suspects, with a pace and power missing from many of the other seasonal over-produced tracks here, especially given the no-good-narrator in the latter track looking forward to happier times, a precursor of the persona that’s going to serve Cash well at his peak during his prison concert albums of the late 60s. Still, though, there’s no getting away from it - if it’s a miserable Christmas you’re looking for this year, look no further than this set. Opener ‘Blue Christmas’ is about the most happy-go-lucky track here! If only Cash had covered some of the more unusual and too often forgotten carols in his gorgeous gravely tones  – ‘The Star Carol’, ‘Riu Chiu’ and especially the drop-dead beautiful why-the-hell-don’t-more-people-record-it-even-outside-Christmas ‘I Wonder As I Wander’ – this set could have become a late contender for re-release of the year.

The biggest Christmas Turkey of all, though, is wife June Carter’s how-can-Johnny-keep-a-straight-face, my-folks-were-poor-and-still-gave-us-love monologue ‘Ringing The Bells For Jim’. Yep, that’s right, the family have no money but still manage to give most of that away to a family who lived down the street with even less and the narrator tells us verse after averse that he fought his brother but still gave him his treasured whistle for Christmas to tell him that he loved him. Half of me still wants to go ‘aaah’ after writing that list, but hearing all this delivered in a monotone vocal for the longest three minutes of your life, well, it’s enough to make you choke on your brussel sprouts. But Christmas is a time for forgiving and there is still much to enjoy on this CD. Cash’s vocals are never less than magnificent and are often better than that, his songwriting is at its best on many of the later self-written tracks and the choir who keep sticking their noses in every time a track from the 1963 album crops up aren’t as irritating as many a Christmas Choir. If you like Johnny Cash this album is worth standing in a long Woollies closing down sale queue for – it just might not be the first thing you bring down out of your loft come next year. Overall rating: ♫♫♫♫ (4/10).


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