Customer Review

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cash gets a band, April 17, 2003
This review is from: Unchained (Audio CD)
1994's American Recordings was a masterpiece that absolutely no one saw coming. Cash had not had a commercial hit in over a decade, was going through some health problems, and was written off by almost everyone. He returned with an amazing album of excellent new songs and inimitable interpretations featuring just his voice and guitar. Never one content to rest on his laurels, though, Cash, now in his mid-60's, came back two years later with another excellent album -- this time fronting a band. Not just any band, either, but no less than Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. While not seeming necessarily the perfect compliments for each other on paper, the Heartbreakers turn out to be a sympathetic and very capable backing band for Cash. The Man In Black's vocals are just as impressive and prescient on this album as they were on the previous; the difference being that the tunes are much more swinging and rocking this time around, due to their full-band arrangements. The trio of Cash, Petty, and, especially, Mike Campbell team up for some fine guitar work on the album, and the rest of the band follows suit; Petty also provides complimentary backing vocals on a handful of tracks. There are less originals this time around (a trend which would continue on subsequent American albums), but that's okay because the covers here, as usual for Johnny, are masterfully done. In addition to covering classics from several genres, Cash also picks up several obscure songs along the way, as well as concentrating on the work of younger songwriters, as he did in 1965 on Orange Blossom Special with its trio of Bob Dylan covers and on 1983's underrated Johnny 99 and its two Bruce Springsteen tracks. Opening up the album is a fine version of Beck's Rowboat, a rocking good-time take with a healthy dose of country twang thrown in for good measure. Sea of Heartbrook is a good song given an emphatic reading from Johnny. Memories Are Made of This is a classic with a performance that does it justice. The title track and Meet Me In Heaven are two beautiful songs with great vocals. Mean-Eyed Cat and Country Boy, both Cash originals, are fun little romps. Fine songs all, but the real standouts of the album are Rusty Cage, Spiritual, and Southern Accents. Few would've expected even an artist as cover-happy as Cash to ever tackle Soundgarden -- and yet he does it here impeccably. You can practically see Cash flipping the bird once more at country radio and the country music establishment as he gives a perfect, defiant vocal over the song's absolutely brutal guitar riff which puts not only Cash, but the Heartbreakers (a rock band, but hardly a hard or heavy rock band) as well into heretofore-unseen regions of heavy metal-esque proportions. Spiritual is, quite simply, the most powerful performance of a gospel song I have ever heard. I defy anyone who denies Mr. Cash's vocal prowess to sit and listen to this song and not be moved and shaken to the very core. An absolutely masterful performance that will leave you quivering and in an emotional state of shock, regardless of your religious views. Southern Accents is a Petty track that is given new life by Cash, who turns it into nothing less than an anthem. Though it could not surprise as the first American Recordings album did, Unchained was its near equal, and a worthy, new, and varied addition to the Cash catalog that deserved the Grammy it received for Best Country Album. Of course, Johnny Cash would like to thank country radio and the Nashville music establishment...
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