Johnny Cash

American Records, 1996


REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Johnny Cash did what many people didn't think was possible back in 1994: he became hip with Generation X thanks to his album American Recordings. Featuring just Cash and his guitar, he introduced many young people to a form of country folk which regrettably is slowly dying - and he showed that same crowd just how special he could make it sound.

Two years later, Cash returned the favor by taking a song from Generation X and giving it the ol' country-folk spin on Unchained. While this album doesn't work quite as well as the simplicity of American Recordings, it still proves to be a worthwhile follow-up. (It also proved to be a testamonial to Cash that artists like Beck contributed songs, and otehr artists like Flea, Tom Petty and Marty Stuart contributed as guest musicians.)

Throughout the 14 songs on this album, Cash proves that as he gets older, he just gets better - and it makes me sad that he hasn't been able to release more material of late due to illness. Yet his switch to a full band on my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Unchained still is a little bit of a shocker, even though I went into this album knowing not to expect a sequel to American Recordings.

Sometimes, the full band tends to dilute the sheer power Cash can have over the music - not that it becomes less enjoyable, but it does become less hypnotic. Tracks like "Sea Of Heartbreak," "Kneeling Drunkard's Plea" and "Southern Accents" fall prey to this - though I admit a song like "Sea Of Heartbreak" probably wouldn't have worked as just a guitar-and-vocal number.

Serving as a duality, the full band sometimes pushes Cash to new heights. Tracks like "Rowboat," "Spiritual" and "I've Been Everywhere" (the last track might sound familiar thanks to its use in a gasoline commercial) challenge Cash to go even farther than he might have as just a solo artist, and he constantly rises to the challenge.

I bought this tape a few years after it came out, and I had forgotten that Cash had covered "Rusty Cage" from Soundgarden. At first, it's not quite recognizable - that is, until he kicks into the chorus. It's not a note-for-note cover, but Cash does do some interesting things to the song - making it even more sinister than even Chris Cornell could have ever dreamed the song to be. Even if you're a purist when it comes to alternative music, Cash's version of "Rusty Cage" is an intriguing - and worthwhile - listen.

Perhaps the most surprising moment comes when Cash does his cover of "Memories Are Made Of This," a song your parents and grandparents probably know quite well. I seem to remember Dean Martin making this song popular - and Cash's version ranks up there as well, even though I do miss some of the harmony backing vocals. Cash takes on this genre so well that it makes me think he could easily front any type of band and excel. (Cripes, look what Shatner is doing for PriceLine - that's a crime against nature. Put Cash in an ad, and he would kick Kirk's ass. 'Nuff said.)

Unchained is a little bit of a left turn for anyone who discovered Cash through American Recordings, but it proves to be a natural progression for an artist who has seen the ebbs and tides of many a genre. I don't know if anyone who knows Cash is reading this - but if there is, please tell Johnny there are people like myself eagerly awaiting his next album.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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