Friday, April 30, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Vitalogy,’ Pearl Jam (1994)

If “Vs.” was a meaner record than “Ten,” then “Vitalogy” is downright nasty. Harsh. Devoid of all studio sheen. This album is stripped bare to the essentials and, as such, is one of the band’s best-sounding records.

Lyrically “Vitalogy” is unquestionably Eddie Vedder’s best Pearl Jam album. The heart of his tale is “Corduroy,” a song so rich with meaning it’s worthy of an essay all its own. Now a rock star, Vedder’s life had changed violently in the past few years and he’s left wondering if and why this is what he wanted. “You’re finally here and I’m a mess” he howls in the opening line—they could’ve put that on the album cover as a tagline for the whole thing.

At the core of "Vitalogy" is the struggle to retain one's humanity amidst the most trying of times. Music being such a core part of who Vedder is, several of the songs here address his relationship to the art form and the business behind it (“Not For You,” “Spin the Black Circle,” “Satan’s Bed”). But elsewhere he focuses on abusive relationships (“Nothingman,” “Better Man”), and a feeling of being bereft and lost in a new world he doesn’t understand (“Tremor Christ,” “Whipping”). Given the heavy subject matter, it should come as no surprise the songs that bookend this album are about escape (“Last Exit,” “Immortality”).

Vedder’s intense desire to pull back from the crushing weight of superstardom is easy to criticize—isn’t making tons of money and being famous why you get into the business in the first place?—but at least he’s being honest. “Vitalogy” was written at a crucial point in the band’s history, as they were on the verge of dissolving under the pressure. Thus, this is the band’s most personal album and, arguably, their most affecting. There's mercifully little politicking going on here.

It’s not all great, though. Dribbled in between the 10 actual songs on “Vitalogy” are experimental musings that drag it down. After awhile you just start overlooking the noodlings of “Pry, To” and “Aye Davanita”; you chuckle at “Bugs” or skip it altogether; you push stop after “Immortality,” not wading through the dystopian psychobabble of “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me.” But just because we’ve grown accustomed to ignoring all that filler doesn’t make it go away, and any honest assessment of “Vitalogy” must take into account how much these tracks take away from what could have been Pearl Jam’s best album. Trim all the crap out of this CD and you’re left with … this:

Last Exit

Spin the Black Circle

Not For You

Tremor Christ




Satan’s Bed

Better Man


Put that playlist on your iTunes and let it run straight through. Wow.

But, intentional or not, those twisty cuts accomplished exactly what Pearl Jam wanted—and needed. “Vitalogy” was the band’s last smash-hit album. They lost a significant number of fans too weirded out by this CD to stick with them any longer. After “Vitalogy,” Pearl Jam became the biggest cult band in the world. They continue to sell out arenas most everywhere they play, but “Vitalogy” let just enough air out of that fame balloon and in so doing kept Pearl Jam from exploding.

That’s worth sacrificing a classic album for, I guess.

Grade: A-

Favorite Track: “Corduroy”

Least Favorite Track: “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me”

Thursday, April 29, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Vs.,’ Pearl Jam (1993)

In a way, Pearl Jam’s second album set the template for all those that followed. When it’s good, it’s great; when it’s bad, it’s really bad.

Overall, “Vs.” is a much leaner, meaner record than its predecessor “Ten.” Gone are the annoying reverb and other thick-as-mud production mistakes. Gone, too, are the classic-rock guitar solos. This album is sharp and straightforward—right down to the clattering drumsticks at the end of “Rearviewmirror.” While Eddie Vedder’s voice is as powerful as ever, he screams instead of sings in several spots—most notably “Blood”—providing a rawer sound than anything on “Ten.”

Unfortunately, “Vs.” also isn’t as consistently good. Certainly it features some of the band’s best-ever songs, strangely most of them softer tracks such as “Daughter,” “Indifference,” and (though I’ve grown weary of it during concerts) “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.” Taut rockers “Go,” “Animal,” and “Blood” embraced the band’s punk influences more openly than ever and set a high bar for the many PJ songs in this genre to follow. The aforementioned “RVM,” meanwhile, is easily among the band’s top achievements in arena-sized songwriting.

Those are the hits—the misses are glaring: “Glorified G” goes nowhere; “Rats” sounds a little silly after all these years; the juvenile lyrics of “Leash” don’t hold up at all, either; and “Dissident” … I just hate that song. Throw in “W.M.A.,” which always sounded more like an extended improv than an official song, and you’re left with quite a mixed bag.

Of all Pearl Jam’s albums, my opinion on “Vs.” has changed the least over the years. I look forward to hearing some of these songs in concert, but the CD’s flaws mean I rarely listen to the actual disc much anymore.

Grade: B-

Favorite Track: “Indifference”

Least Favorite Track: “Dissident”

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Ten,’ Pearl Jam (1991)

A few months ago I wrote about how some bands work up to their best material, and others give you their best work right away. In Pearl Jam’s case, it was a bit of both.

“Ten” is the sound of … release. These guys had been slogging away at the music business for years—going nowhere—and all of a sudden they got in a room together and their talents complemented one another perfectly, in a way only a select few bands experience. Written in just a few days, the album is like one cathartic anthem broken into 11 parts. It would be more another 15 years before they’d write a collection of songs with such a clear purpose and unified sound.

Strangely enough, “Ten” also sounds like nothing the band’s recorded since. It was a get-to-know-you record, where they sought common ground among a wide array of influences that ended up merging classic rock, metal, and punk into a fusion of what they’d help define as “alternative.” Since this album, the band’s gone beyond their comfort zones to varying levels of success. I get the feeling none of their subsequent CDs have come together nearly as easily or naturally—mostly by design.

I’ve had a twisted relationship with “Ten” not unlike many PJ fans, I imagine. It was the first “alternative” record I ever heard, and, thus, changed my life forever. I listened to it incessantly for a period of time, but familiarity eventually bred a little contempt. Like the band members themselves, I got sick of these songs and convinced myself “Ten” was just, you know, OK.

What a crock. For years I just haven’t wanted to be one of those lame people who say it’s the band’s best album because I felt that somehow demeaned the rest of Pearl Jam’s catalog. But just because I feel they’ve done even better songs since doesn’t mean there’s ever been so many of them on one CD. And it doesn’t mean praise for “Ten” is synonymous with saying it defines Pearl Jam’s sound or the sum total of the band’s legacy—because it definitely does not. If they’d wanted to, they probably could have written 10 more “Tens.” But then they wouldn’t be who they are, and I probably wouldn’t be going to see them again next month. They likely wouldn’t even still be together.

This is a great record. A classic with nary a weak point. While it’s not my personal favorite Pearl Jam release, I can’t objectively point to another one that’s better.

Grade: A

Favorite Track: “Alive”

Other Favorite Track: “Release”

Least Favorite Track: “Deep”

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

CD of the Day: 13 Days of Pearl Jam

On May 13 I'll attend my 13th Pearl Jam concert. So for the next 13 (week)days, I'm going back through the PJ catalog to get myself ready for the show. Starting with …

‘Temple of the Dog,’ Temple of the Dog (1991)

This one-off album is famous because it features Pearl Jam members before they even were “Pearl Jam”—with Chris Cornell on lead vocals and—in a come-full-circle moment—eventual PJ drummer Matt Cameron (then with Soundgarden). It was released to little fanfare in 1991 but broke huge a year later once Pearl Jam and Soundgarden started dominating modern rock radio.

As famous as it is, I wonder how many fans actually listen to this album all that much anymore. I don’t.

“Temple of the Dog” was recorded quickly in honor of a dead friend, and it’s fascinating to try and pick out the mergent sounds of two iconic bands. In general I’d say this CD leans more toward Soundgarden than Pearl Jam, and not just because Cornell sings lead; “Your Savior,” for instance, is a dead-on Soundgarden cut, while “Say Hello 2 Heaven” features a Mike McCready solo that would fit perfectly on “Ten.” “Pushin’ Forward Back” and “Hunger Strike” are the most equally balanced—no shock, I guess, that these are my two favorites on the disc.

More than anything, though, “Temple of the Dog” is an outpouring of emotion in light of Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood’s death—pain, sadness, anger, mystification. Such a raw undertaking is bound to have some highs and lows.

Let’s start with the best stuff. Of course there’s “Hunger Strike,” the mid-tempo anthem and only track on this disc to feature one Eddie Vedder on lead vocals. The song is an icon of 1990s rock—you know it right from that first guitar melody. Other choice cuts include opener “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” hard-rocking “Pushin’ Forward Back,” and ballad “Times of Trouble” (whose core riff also became PJ’s “Footsteps”). I also like a bit of the bluesy, twangy music on here in “Call Me A Dog” and “All Night Thing.”

My overriding complaint about “Temple of the Dog” is simple: The songs are way too long. The biggest offender is “Reach Down” at more than 11 minutes (!!!), but “Four Walled World” (6:54), “Say Hello 2 Heaven” (6:24), and “Times of Trouble” (5:43) could’ve used some trimming, too. Many of the tracks feel a bit generic, shapeless, and lack focus. Though it’s only 10 cuts long, “TOTD” clocks in at nearly an hour, making a once-through listen tough to survive.

Looking back with the perspective that only two decades can provide, “Temple of the Dog” is an over-praised CD. It’s definitely important to the history of Pearl Jam and worth an occasional listen, but in general the songs here aren’t as exciting as anything the group’s contributing members created in their respective bands.

Grade: B

Favorite Track: “Hunger Strike”

Least Favorite Track: “Wooden Jesus”

Monday, April 26, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Mission Control,’ The Whigs (2008)

For their second album it’s like the Whigs went through my CD collection and decided to make a best-of compilation in their own words. On “Mission Control,” the Athens, Ga., trio take a whirlwind trip through the past three decades of rock and roll, delivering one of 2008’s best records in the process.

If you don’t like a particular track, just wait about three minutes because one song doesn’t sound anything like any other. It’s an astounding feat for one band to take so many sharp turns in so short a span (the album clocks in at less than 40 minutes) and still make it all work. I don’t pretend to know The Whigs’ actual influences, but here’s what these ears hear:

• “Already Young” is the best arena-ready rocker Pearl Jam never wrote.

• “Right Hand on My Heart” is a soaring drummer’s manifesto reminiscent of the Foo Fighters.

• Lead single “Like a Vibration” hearkens back to the hard-driving passion of Social Distortion.

• “I Never Want to Go Home” evokes the lilting style of Snow Patrol’s “Final Straw.”

• “Hot Bed” recalls the perfect pop/rock pitch captured by the La’s.

• “Production City” plays like an homage to The Clash.

Though not perfect (the twofer of “Sleep Sunshine” and “1,000 Wives” bogs down the middle a bit), “Mission Control” is a deep, wide-ranging rock record with hooks and melodies to spare. It’s one of my favorites in recent memory.

Grade: A-

Favorite Track: “Right Hand on My Heart”

Least Favorite Track: “Sleep Sunshine”

Friday, April 23, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘I and Love and You,’ The Avett Brothers (2009)

I’m not one who usually talks like this, but The Avett Brothers’ music touches—no, check that, grabs—me right in the soul. This album made an instant emotional connection in that way only music you love can. I can’t play these songs loud enough.

It’s their voices, more than anything: These boys’ vocals are pure, bright, strong, crisp, and clear. The harmonies on this, their latest album (and basically every song of theirs I’ve heard) are so pleasing and good it almost hurts. They’re like this century’s country version of Simon and Garfunkel.

I’d heard about them for a while, but I first heard them on the “Ace of Cakes” TV show, of all places. Maybe I’m just a sucker for an edible banjo, but I bought this CD almost immediately after catching their brief performance on that show—a few seconds of footage was all it took. Their sound is rooted firmly in folk, bluegrass, and country, but they wander all over the musical map. At times they remind me of Ryan Adams (“Ten Thousand Words”) or Ben Kweller (“And It Spread”), at others Ben Folds (“The Perfect Space”) or Bruce Hornsby (“Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise”).

The variety of moods, emotions, and styles on this disc is stunning: How they can go from the devastatingly sparse title track to a Barenaked Ladies-esque ditty like “Slight Figure of Speech” is beyond me. They can rave up to a bar-brawling fervor like early Wilco (“Kick Drum Heart”) and then rebound with a quintessential country ballad (“Laundry Room”).

It all works, though, because these two brothers (plus bassist Bob Crawford) can sing. They sing loud and they sing proud, and it’s so good you won’t know whether to smile or cry. Either way, you’ll be doing so with joy.

Grade: A-

Favorite Track: “I and Love and You”

Other Favorite Track: “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise”

Least Favorite Track: “It Goes On and On”

Thursday, April 22, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘On How Life Is,’ Macy Gray (1999)

History may remember Macy Gray as little more than a one-hit wonder thanks to “I Try,” but that would be a shame because that song may not even be the best one on her debut album.

Gray shows every side of her personality on this fantastic disc: sultry, strong, street-wise, sensitive … she has it all. The music here demonstrates just as much range, as she fuses funk, soul, R&B, hip-hop, and more—all of it, of course, set off by her iconic frog-in-throat voice.

This is one of those gateway CDs, opening my ears to new types of music outside my traditional favorite genres at the time I picked it up. I can’t say “On How Life Is” led me directly to artists such as Otis Redding, Al Green, and Marvin Gaye, but this album certainly didn’t hurt.

Grade: B+

Favorite Track: “Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak”

Least Favorite Track: “I’ve Committed Murder”

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Incesticide,’ Nirvana (1992)

I’m not a huge Nirvana fan, but a disc like this that’s made me come to respect them so much. It’s obscene that a collection of b-sides, demos, and other castoffs is this good.

“Incesticide” is certainly solid enough to be an official album, even though it isn’t. The title is apt, because most of the tracks here sound like a blending between Nirvana’s second and third albums, with the power of “Nevermind” mixing with the raw-nerve sound of “In Utero.” The disc flies by, with most songs hovering around the two-minute mark. Yet, even a track like “Been a Son” feels like a fully developed effort at just 1:56.

B-side comps often become some of my favorite discs; there’s no pressure or expectations, no dramatic “statement” to be made—just a bunch of songs standing on their own. There’s also no better proof of a band’s caliber than when cuts this good can’t even make the official record. Sure, there are some trouble spots—Kurt Cobain’s caterwaul on “Hairspray Queen” is downright unbearable, for example—but that’s to be expected from a warts-and-all collection like this. Considering the broader context of this collection, a few missteps are easily overlooked.

Grade: B+

Favorite Track: “Been a Son”

Least Favorite Track: “Hairspray Queen”

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘American VI: Ain’t No Grave,’ Johnny Cash (2010)

I wanted to love this album because, you know, it’s the last Johnny Cash album ever. But I just don’t. And that’s fine, because “American VI” is basically just the leftovers from Cash’s American recordings, anyway. They’re nice, sure, but leftovers never taste as good as the original meal.

The best song is right out front: “Ain’t No Grave” plays like a sister track to “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”—same tone, same phrasing, same rattlin’ chains. This song also gets an extra-special boost with the banjo plucking of Scott Avett.

While none of the other nine tracks quite match up, they’re certainly good enough not to be left unheard in a storage room somewhere. Producer Rick Rubin cleaned out the last of the Man in Black’s treasure trove with this final release, and if nothing else it shows how amazingly productive Cash was in his last days—these are well-fashioned songs, not just the ramblings of an old singer past his prime. “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound,” “For the Good Times,” and “Satisfied Mind” are my other favorites.

You’d think Cash’s last recordings would pack an emotional wallop, but that’s not the case. There’s no “On the Evening Train” or “Hurt” here; instead we have a couple rather tepid politically themed cuts like “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” and Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Day,” the latter featuring a spooky, breathy guitar part we’ve heard many times over in the American series.

Cash’s last original song, “I Corinthians 15:55,” aims for defiance in the face of death that characterizes so many of these latter-day tracks, but the scripture he chose to adapt is a bit wordy and awkward, siphoning off some of the words’ impact. “Aloha Oe” falls flat in the same way—the written words are full of meaning given the context of when Cash sang them, but it’s just plain weird to have his career end with a Hawaiian folk song.

“Ain’t No Grave” isn’t that one last masterpiece I was hoping for but I’m glad to have it, nevertheless. Despite its faults, the album proves Cash left this world in his full rejuvenated glory.

Grade: B-

Favorite Track: “Ain’t No Grave”

Least Favorite Track: “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream”

Monday, April 19, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘American V: A Hundred Highways,’ Johnny Cash (2006)

Honesty and openness mark of all these American recordings, especially those after Cash fell ill. His frankness in the face of mortality is part of what makes this series so compelling. And perhaps no song in the entire catalog is as devastatingly transparent as this album’s “On the Evening Train.”

Though it was originally penned by Hank Williams, I can’t imagine there was a more fitting way for Cash to cathartically process the death of June Carter than this track; and, as is the case with so many of these latter songs, he allows us to read him like an open book. It ends thus:

I pray that God will give me courage

To carry on ’til we meet again

It’s hard to know she’s gone forever

They’re carrying her home on the evening train

Gets me every time.

That’s just one of several emotionally charged moments on “American V.” The album features tracks recorded in Cash’s final days, culled into a sterling collection by the Man in Black’s latter-day collaborator, producer Rick Rubin. Opener “Help Me” is another prayer to God, while Cash original “I Came to Believe” is one of the simplest and most effective declarations of Christian faith I’ve ever heard.

It’s not all about introspection, though. Cash still manages to stomp and strut as good as ever, facing death with courage and defiance. “Like the 309” is one more train-themed original for good measure; “Further On (Up the Road)” is one of the best Springsteen covers I’ve ever heard; and his chain-gang interpretation of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” wields a heavenly thunder.

You could make the argument, I guess, that this album’s weakness is the three-track sequence of “A Legend in My Time”/“Rose of My Heart”/“Four Strong Winds,” but even these tower over many of the cover selections from previous entries in the series.

“A Hundred Highways” is the strongest, most moving American installment. If it had been the last of the group, there could have been no better ending for Cash's career than the quiet content found in “I’m Free from the Chain Gang Now.”

This is one of my favorite CDs of all time.

Grade: A

Friday, April 16, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘My Mother’s Hymn Book,’ Johnny Cash (2004)

In the liner notes for this release, Johnny Cash says “My Mother’s Hymn Book” is his favorite Johnny Cash album, and the recordings bear him out. Though on the surface this collection’s man-and-his-guitar sound is identical to 1994’s “American Recordings,” he brings a deeper level of passion to these beloved old songs. You can hear the love—for his mother, for music, for God—in his voice. He never overdoes it, either. Half the time it’s almost like he’s talking to you as much as singing; he’s lived with these hymns his whole life, so they float easily from his lips. This is simple and pure, a reflection of the way he seemed to live his life in those final days.

I know I’m one of the last people on earth still buying CDs, but if you don’t have this yet, I strongly urge you to pick up the physical copy (it’s also part of the “Unearthed” box set from ’03). The liner notes are an essential part of the listening experience, with comments from Cash and his family explaining why these songs meant so much to him, track by track. He talks about hearing two of these hymns at his brother’s funeral, how his mother loved some of them so deeply, and how his entire family sang “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” around his father’s hospital bed.

More than anything, though, “My Mother’s Hymn Book” is a tremendous Christian witness. Cash isn’t just paying lip service to a genre he likes; these songs were etched into his soul, and, in a way, tell his own life’s redemption story. It’s like he combined all these hymns into one when he wrote “I Came to Believe” for “American V.”

This is moving, beautiful work.

God loves music and that music brings hope for a better tomorrow. —Johnny Cash

Grade: A

Thursday, April 15, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘American IV: The Man Comes Around,’ Johnny Cash (2002)

That this is arguably Cash’s worst of the six proper American albums demonstrates just how wonderful this latter-day career renaissance truly was. Yes, "American IV" features some of the weakest songs of the catalog, but it also offers some of the best.

It’s impossible to start anywhere but with “Hurt,” the masterful Nine Inch Nails cover that exposed Cash to an entirely new generation; it is a triumph of interpretation and execution. “Personal Jesus” is another particular favorite, with that fantastic acoustic bass line drawing you into Cash’s still-imposing voice, while “Tear Stained Letter,” “Sam Hall,” and the title track demonstrate Cash could still rock and roll with you. He also offers majestic takes on The Beatles’ “In My Life,” Sting’s “I Hung My Head,” and his own “Give My Love to Rose.”

There’s a difference between stately and downright immobile, though, and too many tracks on “American IV” fall into the latter category. Cash’s version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” has always seemed an odd choice to me, and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” barely has a pulse. Later, the three-track run of “Danny Boy”/“Desperado”/“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is one of the worst stretches of any American album.

Cash manages a recovery, closing the last album of his life with the uplifting “We’ll Meet Again.” Yet nothing can mask the fact “American IV” is the most uneven of his final records.

Grade: B-

Favorite Track: “Personal Jesus”

Least Favorite Track: “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘American III: Solitary Man,’ Johnny Cash (2000)

Following the recording of “Unchained,” Johnny Cash’s health started to seriously decline. The impact on his body and spirit are both evident in this, his next release.

"American III" is the first album of his career where Cash sounds frail. Though he can still muster much of his considerable bravado, his voice is shakier, his words slightly slurred at times—a marked difference from the bombast of “Unchained” four years earlier.

“American III” also marks a shift in theme and tone that would carry through the rest of his recording career. The choices here are significantly darker in content and interpretation, yet they are defiant and honest in the face of death. Look no further than opener “I Won’t Back Down,” supported by the man who wrote the song in the first place, Tom Petty. That sentiment could have titled this record and each of the remaining three Cash cut before succumbing to death in 2003.

Musically “American III” is a mixed bag and shows signs the American sessions were losing a little steam. The first half of this 14-song disc is outstanding, offering up some of his best work from this period. “I See A Darkness” is an epic masterpiece; Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat” is filled with frank boldness—“I’ve got nothing left to lose, and I’m not afraid to die,” he bellows. “Solitary Man” was worthy of the Grammy it won and features one of the best guitar parts of any American recording. Cash's cover of U2’s “One” is simply gorgeous.

The second half, though, is filled mostly with sleepy acoustic numbers that lack the urgency and vitality of the original “American Recordings” album. “Field of Diamonds” is notable here as the last Cash song to feature June Carter before her death, while “Wayfaring Stranger" is an appropriately mournful finale. But there’s little else to get excited about in the final seven tracks.

Grade: B

Favorite Track: “One”

Other Favorite Track: “I See A Darkness”

Least Favorite Track: “Would You Lay With Me (In A Field of Stone)”

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Unchained,’ Johnny Cash (1996)

As the title aptly declares, on this record Cash sounds set free to do anything and everything he pleases like the steamrolling artist of his youth—like “American Recordings” was a cleansing process that left him renewed and reborn.

Backed by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, it’s clear “Unchained” is a wholly different experience right from the first track, a sumptuous cover of Beck’s “Rowboat.” There’s freewheelin’ rockabilly frenzy throughout on tracks like “Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea,” “Country Boy,” “Mean Eyed Cat,” and “I’ve Been Everywhere.” You can hear the smile in these songs.

The album features slower numbers, too, but Cash’s still-massive voice soars anew with a full band behind him on cuts like “Unchained,” “Spiritual,” and “Meet Me in Heaven.”

There are three songs that stand above the rest: a sparkling cover of Petty’s own “Southern Accents”; “Sea of Heartbreak,” which we now know from Rosanne Cash’s “The List” was one of the Man in Black’s 100 favorite songs of all time; and a fire-breathing interpretation of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” which is one of the best recordings in his entire American catalog.

The first two CDs in this series are perfect complements to one another: the first reenergized Cash by bringing him back to his roots; the second showed what the man could do at his peak.

Grade: A-

Favorite Track: “Rusty Cage”

Least Favorite Track: “The One Rose (That’s Left in My Heart)”

Monday, April 12, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘American Recordings,’ Johnny Cash (1994)

To commemorate the release of Johnny Cash’s final album, “American VI: Ain’t No Grave,” earlier this year, CD of the Day will highlight the entire American series over the next week or so.

I know this is commonly regarded as Cash’s best album of his American sessions with producer Rick Rubin, but you’ll just have to forgive me if I don’t agree. That’s not to say “American Recordings” isn’t an excellent listen, I just prefer Cash backed by the likes of the Heartbreakers than flying solo.

I have to be in the right mood for “American Recordings”—it’s stark, deliberate, and dark. Like Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” it’s not the type of album to pop in any ol’ time, unless I'm in a somber mood and happen to be driving through the blackness of a moonless night.

The lack of accompaniment puts the focus squarely on Cash’s unmistakable voice, which at this point in his life could still fill a bottomless pit. There’s no wavering or frailty here as would follow on latter American releases; he’s all power and might. His guitar work is just as good, eschewing his trademark train-wheel cachunk for more traditional folk chords. Forced to choose, Glenn Danzig-penned “Thirteen” is my favorite track, but almost all of the choices are made of the same solid stuff.

“American Recordings” is like a heavy, dramatic film—I acknowledge its brilliance, but that doesn’t mean I want to go through it over and over again. Though it is certainly one of the most consistent efforts in Cash’s American series, I nevertheless listen to it less than all the others.

Grade: B

Favorite Track: “Thirteen”

Least Favorite Track: “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry”

Friday, April 09, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Grey Cell Green’ EP, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin (1991)

Released in 1991, this EP was clearly ahead of its time, which is probably why Ned’s Atomic Dustbin never caught on in the U.S. (that, and the stupid name). “Grey Cell Green” sounds like a predecessor to the emo bands that rose to the fore about a decade later. Their crisp, clear, heavily electric sound is like a mix of Hey Mercedes and The Smashing Pumpkins.

Musically, NAD is quite exciting here, especially the tidal wave of sound that is “Titch”; for only 16 minutes' worth of songs, each of the five tracks carry their own identity and have significant variety from one to another. What holds them back is vocalist Jonn Penney, whose voice isn’t all that dynamic and seems to land on basically one note the whole way through.

Grade: B

Favorite Track: “Titch”

Thursday, April 08, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Californication,’ Red Hot Chili Peppers (1999)

This dramatic comeback album is greater than the sum of its parts. The best songs are frontloaded on the disc, but the second half doesn’t exactly falter, either. “Californication” is a smooth and pleasurable journey start to finish; its consistency goes a long way.

The first four songs are certainly one of the best stretches of music the band’s produced in two decades of work. Opener “Around the World” is actually the weakest of the bunch, but isn’t that growling bass line a great way to say, "Uh, yeah, we're BACK"? “Parallel Universe" takes the opposite tack; it builds and builds to a massive explosion in the final 1:30. “Scar Tissue’s” riff, meanwhile, rivals that of “Under the Bridge,” and “Otherside” is a groove of addictive power.

While the title track, in the sixth slot, is the last great song of this CD, that doesn’t mean the final eight cuts aren’t worth your time. “I Like Dirt” and “Right on Time” are the least of these, but they’re more than countered by hard-driving “Emit Remmus,” rich “This Velvet Glove,” and grandiose “Savior.” Quiet numbers, “Porcelain” and “Road Trippin’,” are also worthwhile.

After disappearing for the latter half of the ’90s, RHCP earned the accolades and success they received with this tremendous return to form. It got me through many an all-nighter.

Grade: A-

Favorite Track: “Scar Tissue”

Other Favorite Track: “Californication”

Least Favorite Track: “Get on Top”