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Modern Blue

Music Review: Rosanne Cash – ‘The River & The Thread’

river and the thread front

Rosanne Cash’s latest release illustrates how the label of country singer is far too limiting for a person of her talents. Perhaps she can be called a modern musician.

Here’s a look at the songs on The River & The Thread, which was produced and arranged by her husband, John Leventhal.

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“A Feather’s Not a Bird” is a fine opening, as a Bonnie Raitt style attitude meets Creedence Clearwater Revival type instrumentation. It’s clear that there’s nothing tentative about Cash. She’s confident and in charge as she sings, “…a river runs through me.” “Sunken Lands” is unique as a blend of classic and modern country built upon a Johnny Cash pulse.

“Etta’s Tune” is an introspective love song that might have been written by Jackson Browne: “We’re just a mile or two from Memphis/And the rhythm of our lives.” One can easily visualize Tom Petty singing Cash’s rocker, “Modern Blue”: “I went to Barcelona on the midnight train/I walked the streets of Paris in the pouring rain/I flew across an island in the northern sea/I ended up in Memphis, Tennessee….” There’s also a touch of the Eagles in the lyrics: “Everybody around here moves too fast/It feels so good but it’s never going to last/Everything I had is twice what I knew….”

“Tell Heaven” is an unplugged song about faith. The Judds would have loved to have sung this. “The Long Way Home” is an angst-filled song about lost love that calls to mind Don Henley, Mark Knopfler and Carly Simon (“You’re So Vain”). It’s beautifully realized: “You thought you left it all behind/You thought you’d up and gone/But all you did was figure out how to take the long way home….”

“World of Strange Design” is a song about differences and discrimination, with a musical presentation that channels Dire Straits. “Night School” is a Tori Amos style ballad: “I’d give anything to be lying next to you/In night school.” The uplifting “50,000 Watts” is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising”: “To be who we are/And not just who we were/A sister to him, a brother to her/We live like kings/without any sin/Redemption will come, just tune it on in….”

“When the Master Calls” is a touching song about the Civil War which would have fit well on Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection album. “Money Road” is the relaxing closing song about a dream, but the standard eleven-track edition of this album is only 38 minutes long. Consider purchasing the Limited Edition Deluxe version, which adds three additional songs and 10-plus more minutes of music.

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“Two Girls” is the first bonus track on the Limited Edition, and it sounds like a song from Neil Young’s Harvest Moon album. “Biloxi” is one of the great songs written by the late Jesse Winchester: “Beautiful girls are swimming in the sea/Oh, they look like sisters in the ocean/The boy will find his path with salted water/And the storms will blow off toward New Orleans.”

“Southern Heart” is a short, 2 minute long, song with plucked violin strings that would have been a great single in the 1960s; it’s a song very much in the style of the Andy Williams hit, “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.”

river and the thread rosanne

Cash has laid out her musical skills for the world to see on this release. It’s a highly recommended masterpiece or very close to it. But forget the ratings, just think of this as a near priceless gift delivered by Cash to her fans, current and prospective.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by Blue Note Records.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/music-review-rosanne-cash-the-river-the-thread/

This review was also used by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Music-Review-Rosanne-Cash-The-River-The-5411097.php

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Full Circle

Music Review: Gene Clark (of The Byrds) – ‘Two Sides to Every Story’ [2014 Deluxe Edition]

two sides Gene Clark

I’ve been a huge fan of the music of the late Gene Clark. In fact, when I purchased the 2006 Byrds 4-CD box, There Is a Season, the first thing I did was to find all of the songs written or co-written by Clark and place them on a single CD-R. So I anxiously looked forward to hearing Two Sides To Every Story, a record that, as noted by Clark’s biographer John Einarson, “was (less than) appreciated in 1977.” After listening to the 10 tracks on Two Sides To Every Story, I can understand why the album was not a commercial success.

Story has been re-issued by High Moon Records in a deluxe hardbound Eco-Book (actually, a booklet) with 26 color pages. An enclosed download card allows one to hear over 90 minutes of Clark songs performing live in 1975.

Here’s a look at the content of the album.

“Home Run King” sounds like a Michael Nesmith tune. The lyrics do not make much sense: “You are either the newspaper boy/Or you’re either Babe Ruth.” Interestingly, the song is structured a lot like “The Bug” from Dire Straits: “Sometimes you’re the Louisville Slugger/Sometimes you’re the ball.” It’s a whimsical track but Clark did not seem to enjoy singing it.

“Lonely Saturday” is a straight country – not country-rock – tune that might have fit well on a Jimmy Clanton (“Just a Dream”) or Jimmie Rodgers album. It’s a high quality song but Clark’s limited vocal range in ’77 does not do it justice.

“In the Pines” is a banjo and violin-laden track that’s 110% country and needlessly over the top. This song speaks of a “black girl” who causes the singer to leave his home, while “Home Run King” referenced “the black Madonna sleeping with a star.” Autobiographical?

“Kansas City Southern” is a rocker, fortunately. It’s kind of like Bob Seeger-meets-the Eagles. If only the entire album was like this! “Well, I’d sit and watch those trains go by/And wish that I was homeward bound.” It’s a track that requires some attitude to be done properly – Clark is not quite up to the task here. I’m sure that either Rosanne Cash or Bonnie Raitt could record a dynamite, knock-your-socks-off version.

“Give My Love to Marie” is Clark’s cover of a song written by James Talley about a black lung miner. It’s an emotional ballad about a poor dying man (“There’s millions in the ground/not a penny for me….”) that would have been a splendid B-side if “Kansas City Southern” had been released as a single. It’s definitely the best vocal performance by Clark on the album.

“Sister Moon” is a simple 12-line song in the vein of “Moonlight Mile” by the Rolling Stones. There’s too much orchestration because there’s not much content to the song: “Ah, Sister Moon, I am your son.”

“Marylou” is a gritty blues-rock cover of a song written by Sam Ling and Obie Jessie. It’s somewhat reminiscent of “Steamroller” by James Taylor. If John Cougar Mellencamp were to ever record a covers album, he might want to include this one.

Should Jackson Browne be countrified, he would sound like Clark does on “Hear the Wind”: “Life’s the house where we live/We cannot feel tomorrow/Only feel what we give.” It’s a three-minute track that’s pretty weak. “Past Addresses” is a wordy Clark composition – wordiness never being a problem with his earlier songs – that imparts a wistful Late for the Sky feel: “I can only make guesses/On some of my past addresses/And tell you what my broken memory recalls.”

The album concludes with “Silent Crusade,” a song about life as a journey on the ocean. It reads as a nice, admirable poem performed in the style of Gordon Lightfoot. But Clark’s voice cracks and fails him on this closer.

Story is a collection of songs with more losers than winners. It’s more country than country-rock, which limited its appeal back in 1977 and may well do so again. The remastered sound is fine. However, at an Amazon price of $33.47 it’s awfully expensive (even with the live tracks that can be downloaded), especially when you consider that the limited edition deluxe of Rosanne Cash’s The River and the Thread, also packaged in an Eco-Book with 36 color pages, goes for $16.19 on the same site.

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I think Two Sides to Every Story will appeal to Gene Clark completists. It’s unlikely to hold much appeal for others.

Joseph Arellano

This article first appeared on the Blogcritics site and in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Music-Review-Gene-Clark-The-Byrds-Two-Sides-5918222.php

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I Ain’t Living Long Like This

Chinaberry Sidewalks: A Memoir by Rodney Crowell (Knopf; $24.95; 256 pages)

“To be well-loved is to be free of the evil lurking around the next darkened corner.   Every child should know that feeling.”

The country music artist Rodney Crowell is known for his singing and songwriting skills.   His singing voice, often compared to that of Kris Kristofferson (but higher pitched), may leave something to be desired.   But the artist who has written songs like Shame on the Moon, I Ain’t Living Long Like This and (The Way You Burn Me I Should Be) Ashes by Now, has shown himself to be a bright star in this category.   Crowell is also known as being the ex-husband of Rosanne Cash, which has presented other issues, such as coming off second in comparison to her singing, songwriting and writing skills.

It proves to be true again.   For while Chinaberry Sidewalks is interesting in some places, it does not hold the reader’s imagination and interest the way that Rosanne Cash’s brilliantly written memoir Composed does.   Cash displayed a skill for always finding the right interesting words to describe the happenings in her life; and her voice was just as unique as Bob Dylan’s in Chronicles.

Crowell never seems to find his voice or his style here, although he has stated that he felt freed from the strict rules of song writing in putting together – over a decade – this autobiographical account.

With my grandmother and Charlie (the shoe shine man)…  I experienced love as something tangible between myself and another human being.”

This is a tough read because much of it covers the sad scenes of a childhood filled with bickering parents and domestic violence.   No doubt Crowell is being brutally honest, but it is often difficult to wish to read about a childhood described as filled with nothing “but a primal instinct for survival, theirs and mine.”   In one of the hard-to-concentrate on scenes, Crowell’s inebriated mother hits his father whereupon his very drunk dad responds by punching his mother in the face.   The young Crowell intervenes by breaking a Coke bottle over his own head, requiring a trip to the hospital for stitches.   Yes, a few stories like this go a long way.

It must be noted that this memoir contains some near-charming stories of growing up as a boomer child (Crowell was born in August of 1950).   But the reader interested in tales of playing soldier, or cowboys and Indians, etc. will find better written accounts in the memoirs of Bob Greene (When We Get to Surf City).

“…my parents’ deaths were unique to their personalities.”

At the end of Chinaberry Sidewalks, Crowell’s parents have found a sense of normalcy in their lives before they depart the earth.   And love in a marriage that somehow lasted for decades.   It is a comforting message but one that arrives only after a narrative that might have benefited from tighter editing.   Crowell’s narrative never equates to the level of his songwriting skills in this account.

This is not a bad first effort, but the Rodney Crowell that’s found in Cash’s Composed – such as in the classic scene where a nervous young Crowell meets his legendary future father-in-law for the first time – is a far more interesting person than the one found here.

Joseph Arellano  

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Chinaberry Sidewalks was released on January 18, 2011.  

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I Still Miss Someone

Composed

Composed: A Memoir by Rosanne Cash (Viking, $26.95, 245 pages; Penguin Books, $17.00, 256 pages)

“It’s me.   They are all me, the good and the bad.”

Rosanne Cash’s memoir starts off flat and rather dull before it kicks into gear; it then becomes more engaging with every page.   Composed has the same type of non-chronological structure as Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, which perhaps is not an accident as Bob gets a lot of play in this account of the life of Johnny Cash’s daughter.   It almost goes without saying that this is also a first-hand tribute to her late father, the Man in Black.

“On Friday, September 12, air had still gone in and out of his lungs; he had moved his limbs and made sounds.   He had actually squeezed my hand and lifted his eyebrows.   It was a difficult day, the last day of my dad’s life, but not unbearable to me.   The next day, the beginning of my dad’s life in the past tense, was unbearable.”

Rosanne paints her father as a man with faults and addictions (brought on by a jaw broken during dental surgery), but also as a loving man who quietly gave guidance to his daughters.   She came to take him for granted during his life – always sharing him with the world – but has found life difficult without him.

Early in his career Bob Dylan wrote songs based on dreams, and here Rosanne points out that her life has been shaped by a series of remembered dreams.   One of them involved Linda Ronstadt and Cash’s realization that she had been faking it in her career to that point, afraid to take serious chances.   After having that momentous dream, Rosanne resolved to work harder, especially as a serious songwriter.

Another dream involved her father and her need to let him go:  “When I woke…  I felt relief.   It was no longer my job to take care of him, as he was being taken care of, wherever he was.   The legacy of his work was intact, in my dream preserved as carefully and conscientiously as if it had been in a museum.   Something settled…  I could let him move on now.”

One surprise about reading Composed is finding out that Johnny Cash’s daughter is far more a fan of rock musicians than country singer-songwriters.   Yes, she has her idols and heroes in the latter category but she was heavily influenced by Dylan, Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen and the Beatles.   All of these influences seem to have come together in her biggest hit single, “Seven Year Ache.”

As with the afore-mentioned Chronicles, Rosanne Cash writes in a style that is so unique it could not have been ghostwritten.   She has been a long-time student of words and she finds just the right ones to accompany each and every tale of her life told here.

“If Magritte had painted my childhood, it would be a chaos of floating snakes, white oxfords, dead Chihuahuas, and pink hair rollers.”

Composed paper

Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be paid to a memoir is to say that it enabled the reader to come to know the person who wrote it.   Having read Composed, I feel that I now know Rosanne Cash and I like her.   I look forward to hearing more of her music.   As a songwriter she’s joined her idols as one of the best.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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