American VI: Ain’t No Grave (February 2010)

After I found a way to get my mitts on the second posthumous entry in Johnny Cash’s American series, I realized that I wasn’t all that familiar with the series.  After a quick listen through it, thanks to my use of Lala.com to listen to the middle four, I was taken aback at how little Cash’s death has changed the two most recent entries.  Let’s talk about Rick Rubin.

Rick Rubin is a producer whose fame approaches that of and whose talent far exceeds that of Phil Spector.  If you’ve listened to a famous album by a classic rock act or a famous rap artist, there’s a great chance that it was produced by Rick Rubin.  To simply list a select few of his most famous contributions would be to belittle his hysterically expansive discography.  Since the mid-‘80s he has produced roughly five albums per year, and this year his credits thus far include this album and Transcontinental Hustle, gypsy punk rock act Gogol Bordello’s follow-up to 2007’s incredible Super Taranta! While American V: A Hundred Highways may have been Cash’s first posthumous American entry, Rubin had already constructed 2003’s sublime Streetcore, the last leavings of punk rock legend and my personal hero Joe Strummer.

Back to the topic at hand, Rubin and Cash’s American series consists of six albums, each of which span less than an hour and consist of few Cash originals among many quiet covers of famous songs.  Throughout the first five, Cash took on the obvious (Lennon/McCartney, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen) to the interesting (Tom Waits, Nick Lowe, Beck) to the just plain strange (Trent Reznor, Chris Cornell, U2).  Here, the nine covers and one original, the latter of which slides in at the fourth position slyly enough to prevent casual listeners from identifying which of these things is not like the others, all come from lower profile songs and less than surprising sources, but nevertheless amount to what is probably the most interesting and cohesive work of the American series.  From miles away you can sniff out that the album is going to be about death and rising from the grave throughout, but the anticipation doesn’t undo its affectation.  The repeated “ain’t no grave can hold my body down” on the leading and title track, which features contributions from the brothers Avett, never fails to haunt, and then the Sheryl Crowe cover (what?!) keeps that feeling alive.

Aside from his second Kristofferson cover and Rick’s decision to end the album with “Aloha Oe”, the only other thing worth noting is the original, whose Biblical title, “I Corinthians 15:55”, had me suspecting that Rubin had titled an old Cash recording as an homage to John Darnielle’s 2009 opus The Life Of The World To Come.  The verse, the first two lines of the chorus, is answered by Cash’s next three lines: “O Death, where is thy sting?/O Grave, where is they victory?/O Life, you are a shining path/And hope springs eternal just over the rise/When I see my redeemer beckoning me”.  Johnny Cash is right in his failure to fear death.  Even after it came, Cash blessed the world with a small treasure of evocative material.  O Death, where is thy sting?

B+

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Published in: on March 4, 2010 at 5:22 AM  Leave a Comment  

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