Nov 8, 2009

Roseanne Cash's C.D., THE LIST

On October 11, I mentioned my inclination to like Roseanne Cash’s new C.D., The List, after her interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. Ms. Cash came across as a down-to-earth, likeable human, and I found it hard to imagine her as the product of such a star-studded life with her father or in her own career. Also, the few passages NPR selected from the songs on The List sounded great—both the song selection and the performances. I bought the C.D., and now that I’ve listened to it several times, that initial impression has been pretty much borne out.

To re-cap, in 1973, Johnny Cash made a list of what he considered 100 essential country songs and gave them to his daughter when she was 18. As Ms. Cash says in the liner notes, however, these are important American songs more than country music alone—for example, “500 Miles” and “Long Black Veil” from the folk tradition.

Ms. Cash’s rendering of those two, by the way, are among my favorites on the album. As she and Terry Gross agreed in the interview, she slows down “500 Miles” so much that there’s a sense of desperation in it. That’s an interpretation that’s valid and could have been lost to us in the wake of all the versions we might have heard by now, some of them pretty homogenized. Also, by “desperation,” I do not mean melodrama; this version has plenty of dignity and self-control, but it’s more earnest than the marshmellow-and-campfire overtones the title might have accrued over decades.

Ms. Cash’s “Long Black Veil” surpasses any version I’ve heard, except for Joan Baez’s, which was my introduction to the song. The simple guitar work (I think that’s her husband, John Leventhal) is perfect—impossible to miss, but not at all in competition with the vocals.

“Bury Me under the Weeping Willow” illustrates another tradition (bluegrass or mountain music) to which Ms. Cash is faithful. Her voice is just right for the song, and she seems to want to honor the tradition, rather than faking it with artificial bluegrass gestures or some jazzed up interpretation on a tune from the hills.

Maybe the nicest surprise for me is the first track, a piece I’d never heard before, “Miss the Mississippi and You.” It’s a bluesy, swing thing, and every note, every move seems right.

My mild reservations about the other songs boil down to two tendencies. First, there’s more modernization than I’d like—some wah-wah, other electric gadgetfying, including some of that growling machine that sounds like a cross between a dinosaur burp and a rhino fart. Shockingly, it appears for a few seconds in “Long Black Veil,” but in each listening I recover enough to soak up the song one more time.

These new-fangled electrics are only occasional intrusions. My second and larger concern is a tendency to slow things down too much, to turn slow songs into dirges—for example “Take These Chains from My Heart.” Or a fast song goes molasses, in the case of “I’m Movin’ On.”

And here’s a note, not a complaint. Surely people hear some of the quality of Patsy Cline in Roseanne Cash’s voice. As Ms. Cash herself noted in the NPR interview, that is a mixed blessing, for there is only one Patsy Cline. In fact, I wonder if the Cash/Leventhal tendency to slow things down too much is an effort to avoid sounding like a Patsy Cline clone. If so, the price is too high. Besides, Ms. Cash’s voice is plenty satisfying in its own right.

As if you need my instruction, please take my comments for what they’re worth. I am mostly unschooled in music, and there’s very little I’ve liked since about 1980. I plan now to look at other reviews of The List to see what people say when they know what they’re talking about.

On the other hand, I love things as various as: several pieces from Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well, some of Leonard Cohen’s work, a lot of Odetta and Joan Baez, some jazz, a lot of classical music, practically all of Patsy Cline, a lot of Linda Ronstadt, and a lot of the 1970s country stuff, particularly Willie Nelson singing and Kris Kristoferson writing.

In short, I’m not sure how stuck in the old days I am, but I surely won’t deny a dose of it. So it’s that guy who’s saying Roseanne Cash’s The List is very pleasing, much more often than not, and I hope it sells. This kind of music sweetens a commute and needs to survive.

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Unknown said...

I heard Roseanne Cash sing a few songs off the CD on Prairie Home Companion. I thought "Miss the Mississippi," which I became acquainted with through Arlo Guthrie's version, was OK, but I thought her performance overall was a little uneven, and I agree "I'm Movin On" wasn't movin fast enough. I wasn't planning to buy the album. Your review has convinced me this was a good decision. I've had quite enough of dinosaur burps and rhino farts (kudos for the description, though). The most recent additions to my iPod were three songs off the album, "80s Hits Stripped"--867-5309/Jenny, Jessie's Girl, and Missing You. These are acoustic versions done by the original artists, and I was surprised how much I like them--better than the original singles.

Banjo52 said...

Thanks, David. You can bet I'll be checking out those three songs.

Barbaro said...

"that growling machine that sounds like a cross between a dinosaur burp and a rhino fart"

You might want to quit while you're ahead on killer description...

There are definitely worthwhile musical things that can only be done electronically (blues, rock, and heavy metal guitar solos, e.g.). Still, I can't get past my conviction that moving away from an acoustic version of almost anything is a cop-out. The sound produced is rougher, cruder, weaker in harmonics, and the touch and finesse needed to make any acoustic instrument "sing" become vestigial. Call me starry-eyed, but I believe music is in part about charming the material world through an almost athletic dexterity of fingers, mouth, feet, whatever. All the rest is video games and noise.

Anonymous said...

I urge you to listen to the real Jacques Brel. Well hallo, what's this?

I woke up this morning to James Taylor's version of Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier. didn't throw my shoe at that one.

Banjo52 said...

Barbaro, you know your music better than I do, but at least we agree on preferring acoustic. Also, love your last two sentences.

A.H., If "hallo" means "I had no idea," I absolutely agree. I've only seen the movie and a live student production that I actually preferred. But I'd never have predicted that the REAL Jacques Brel would come across as so stage- and camera-conscious. My classes have been reading Susan Sontag's essay, "Camp," and if I understand her or the term, I do believe Jacques Brel would appeal to a camp sensibility.

But in the play/movie/C.D., I still think songs like "Timid Frieda," "Madeline," "The Old Folks," that waltz on YouTube, and others are pretty sweet. And what's the song with "cute, cute, cute in a stupid ass way"? It makes me check the mirror to see if I need to accuse myself again.

Don't be surprised, you two, if you see this as a whole blog entry. Ohio River Life has also given me new musical grist. Gotta check out the James Taylor too--can't imagine DISliking something by him.

Anonymous said...

Oh, maybe you misunderstood. I love JB, in the original.

Banjo52 said...

A.H., what do you think about labeling him "camp," at least on the YouTube videos, and without prejudice about the word--just as a description?

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