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”

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