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)”

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