wears the trousers magazine

rosanne cash: the list (2009)
October 14, 2009, 9:11 am
Filed under: album, review | Tags: , , ,


Rosanne Cash
The List •••
Blue Note

Given a list of what their father considers the greatest songs of all time in his preferred genres, most individuality-defining late-teens wouldn’t pay an awful lot of attention. But then, most don’t have Johnny Cash for a dad. Back in the early ’70s, when his daughter was developing a love of the pop music of the period, her horrified parent sought to point her feet back on to the path of true musical righteousness, compiling a century-strong list of the best in country, bluegrass, folk and gospel and handing it to her. Nearly four decades on, a dozen of that number have made it onto The List, the latest album from Rosanne Cash. These are American standards done to near death down the decades, but still impressive in the right hands. Anyone wanting to revisit such well-worked pastures has to have some justification though. A paternal list from one of the musical legends of the twentieth century in any genre is a starting point, but is it enough? If the impressive roster of collaborative talent is anything to go by then the answer is probably yes. Anyone who can put Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Rufus Wainwright on the same record clearly has a lot of pulling power.

Foregoing her father’s gritty, pared-down menace, the album opener is an unexpected piece of country-tinged lounge swing in the shape of ‘Miss The Mississippi’, a classic, ‘there ain’t no place like the South’ slice of homesick nostalgia first popularised by Jimmie Rodgers. Erring on the unintentionally kitsch it’s workaday rather than auspicious, with too much Norah Jones about its person to be totally comfortable. Thankfully it’s not really indicative of what’s to follow. The earthier, heartfelt traditional of ‘Motherless Children’ feels like the real starting point for this particular musical journey, pathos-filled hard luck blues being the stock in trade of country music. Eric Clapton once famously misunderstood this small but significant pillar of American popular culture, and it probably would take a Cash to rescue it from overly maudlin sentiment. The heartfelt vocal and guitar scrawl halfway through reeks of down-at-heel personal misfortune in those forgotten nowhere-towns that are somehow essential to much of the American sense of self.

On a similarly abused and put-upon theme, the unquiet grave melodrama of ‘Long Black Veil’ finds Cash joined by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy as an innocent man unwilling to offer up a life-saving alibi in order to protect the honour of his mistress is haunted by the dead woman. It’s the perfect allegory for the heroic individualist of American lore battling with a ceaseless conscience in the perpetual struggle to do what’s right. Simple guitar picking and the “once upon a time” of the opening lyric set the scene perfectly, Tweedy’s angsty croak an effective counterpoint to Cash’s effortless sounding vocal. There’s distant delicacy on a beautiful rendering of ‘North Country Fair‘, bringing out the tentative uncertain longings and regret of the rooted lyric in a way that a youthful Bob Dylan couldn’t.

The Boss makes a not unwelcome intrusion on ‘Sea Of Heartbreak’, the debt he owes to Rosanne’s father being evident in his delivery, a note of tribute about both of them, as a real classic shows its simple strength. Elvis Costello’s contribution to ‘Heartaches By The Number’ is less successful, giving little in the way of distinctiveness on a song that was never particularly fitted out for credible longevity. Sharing the same strain of overly emotive kitsch, Cash’s working of ’She’s Got You’ veers little from the Patsy Cline original. It might not inspire visions of Jesus by your hospital bed, but would make a great companion to drunken early hours break-up tears of the kind you’ll be embarrassed by as passing time inevitably heals. In this kind of country, there can be no salvation from a broken heart. The roaring engines slowly failing from sight of ‘Silver Wings’ are the vehicle for another anguished break-up as Merle Haggard’s ‘outlaw country’ classic is given a breathy treatment and a Rufus Wainwright backing that combines to create something not displeasingly MOR.

Pa Cash’s vision of the American dream has always had more time for failure, loss and other travails of life that turn good folk bad, than its latter day triumphalist parody. The List is a welcome reminder of the songwriting craft and real emotion of one of most the most misinterpreted musical traditions on the planet. Choosing twelve out of those 100 songs must have been difficult, and these may not be the best dozen, but there’s enough here to suggest her dad knew what he was doing. Romantic love might often let you down, but Rosanne Cash’s artistic love for the riches of her tradition in its broadest sense sustain her and this album, despite the failings of both.

Martyn Clayton
UK release date: 12/10/09; www.myspace.com/rosannecash

‘I’m Movin’ On’


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