Sunday, 22 September 2002

Album Review: The Swarm

Released in 1998, The Swarm was the first in the series (having been followed by the equally uninspired The Sting) of Wu Tang Killa Bees albums. Two albums and five years later and I've still yet to understand what purpose these dire Killa Bees albums serve.

The album begins with one of its highlights, a film sample taken from The Swarm starring Michael Caine. I actually quite enjoy the film snippets that now-traditionally begin Wu Tang albums, and hearing Michael Caine's distinctive voice make it all the more enjoyable. However, when Michael Caine is providing the most enjoyable part of a hip hop album you know something's amiss.

Along with Caine, Ghostface Killah brings an exciting voice to this album. His track Cobra Clutch is one of the best efforts on the album. Make no mistake though, that does not make it a classic hip hop track, merely one of the best of an awful bunch. The Mathematics production is dull and in fact, the repetitive sample is pretty annoying, but Ghostface is as verbally dextrous as ever and manages to take the track from mediocrity to something slightly better.

Despite Ghostface's displaying his significant talents, the rest of the MCs obviously haven't paid attention. From the opener The Legacy by AIG to Concrete Jungle by Sunz of Man to the last track Fatal Sting by Black Knights of the North Star, every rap is poor. To be fair though, it isn't the lower-tier bees that aren't up to scratch; Rza, Raekwon, Masta Killa and Method Man all deliver substandard verses.

The production on the whole is marginally better than the words, but not by much. And Justice For All is a passable piece of Rza production, but certainly no better than passable. However, the combination of Killa Army and Method Man can't rap well enough on this track to propel it above mediocrity. The somewhat preposterous chorus of, "We never fall / like skyscrapers we stand tall / and justice for all" simply runs home how below par this release is. The only other semi-decent piece of production is found on Bastards by the Ruthless Bastards. The sinister piano sample is reminiscent of Mobb Deep's excellent The Infamous LP.

The one entirely quality track is 97 Mentality by Cappadonna. The Rza produces it and while it is nowhere near his most exciting production it is head and shoulders above everything else on this album. Cappadonna, to his credit delivers some of his best rhymes; certainly up to this release he had nothing as good as this track to show for himself.

One decent and three average tracks from sixteen is a damning indictment and when the best track on a Wu album is from Cappadonna, you know something is seriously wrong. I guess that it is quite admirable that the Wu Tang Clan are using their fame to bring their less established friends to the fore - but, frankly they should be ashamed to put the Wu Tang brand on it.

Saturday, 21 September 2002

Album Review: Solitary Man

In 2000, Johnny Cash’s health had weakened considerably, but this release confirmed that his creative powers were still very much intact. Solitary Man ranks among the finest moments in a recording career that lasted for over half a century.

Solitary Man begins on a defiant note with Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down. Certainly the presence of Petty’s backing vocals and organ playing should be noted, but Cash gracefully appropriates the song, adding a measure of gravitas that was absent from the original. The track is given an impact and poignancy that help transcend the original’s pop leanings.

Cash’s ability to allow the listener to identify with a song was never greater than on this album, but some credit for that must go to Rick Rubin for his trademark under-production. Paring down the instrumentation and arrangements allows the listener to more easily identify with the sentiments being expressed by Cash’s words – whether they are his own or not. Never is this more obvious than on his remarkable re-casting of Nick Cave’s death row narrative The Mercy Seat. Cash replaces Cave’s hysterics with a more conversational delivery. The original frantic Bad Seeds instrumentation is reduced to a hovering organ and a swirling piano melody. Despite the comparatively minimalist approach, the result is no less powerful.

Elsewhere, the title track, a version of Neil Diamond’s 1966 hit, and the soulful cover of U2’s melancholy stadium-ballad One offer further evidence that Cash has an uncanny talent for transforming the works of others. However, it is his interpretation of Bonny Prince Billy’s (Will Oldham) I See A Darkness that stands out. If nothing else, the stark contrast between Cash’s gnarled voice and Oldham’s youthful tone is heartbreaking. When Cash quavers, “There’s a hope that somehow you can save me from this darkness”, all but the callous eyes will be welling up.

However, not all the covers on Solitary Man are borrowed from recent and current artists. Cash’s versatility (in addition to his musical heritage) is once again highlighted, as he resurrects the self-mocking Nobody, a one-hundred-year-old vaudeville tune written by Egbert Williams. Cash also revisits the old treasures That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day) and Mary Of The Wild Moor, upon which Sheryl Crow contributes.

Cash’s own compositions are no less compelling that the cover versions however. Rather the show signs of weakness so late in his career (like so many of his contemporaries), Cash’s song writing is as sharp as ever. Before My Time is a touching love song as well as a humbling consideration of his own place in history. Similarly tender is Field Of Diamonds. While it was originally recorded in 1986 with Waylon Jennings, this new version is enhanced by the backing duet of June Carter Cash and Sheryl Crow.

Cash’s version of the old spiritual Wayfaring Stranger is perhaps the most poignant track on the CD. As Cash lists the family members with whom he will be reunited with in death you can’t help but think that this is a sublime closer to not only an album but to a career. Tragically, his career would only last three more years, but Solitary Man is a wonderful reminder that whether the subject was love, God or murder, Cash was the finest storyteller of them all.

Friday, 20 September 2002

Album Review: Unchained

Unchained is the second in the series of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. On the first album, Cash stuck to fairly traditional fare, performing a set of mostly his own material, and a couple of tracks by his contemporaries like Loudon Wainwright III, Kris Kristofferson and Leonard Cohen. Here Cash’s (and we can only assume producer Rick Rubin’s) choices are far more eclectic. The set list contains works by the likes of Soundgarden, Beck and Tom Petty. Guest spots by artists as diverse as Mick Fleetwood, The Heartbreakers and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea also make this LP more of an assortment than the first offering.

Like its predecessor, Unchained is characterised by Cash’s peerless ability to make each song that he tackles his own. Cash’s own life story and experience add gravity and pathos to lines that seemed almost throwaway when sung by the original artists. This is most poignant, when Cash sings, “Give me some alcohol” on Beck's Rowboat, and later when he brings equal helpings of spirituality and savoir-faire to Soundgarden’s Rusty Cage.

It isn’t just more contemporary songs that Cash performs on Unchained though. He takes Dean Martin’s corny-as-hell Memories Are Made Of This and adds a depth that even Martin couldn’t manage. Later he performs an exquisite version of Tom Petty’s South Accents. On Jimmie Rodgers’ The One Rose (That’s Left In My Heart) and The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea’ (originally performed by The Louvin Brothers but written by June, Helen and Anita Carter) things really snap into place between Cash and The Heartbreakers making these two of the stand out tracks.

Two re-works of Cash’s own songs are also highlights. Meet Me In Heaven, which was originally written for June Carter Cash takes on greater significance now that both she and Cash have passed away. Cash estimates that it took him forty years to write ‘Mean Eyed Cat’. In the liner notes he remarks that any version heard until now cannot be viewed as the finished article, “finally, after 41 years, I’m satisfied with ‘Mean Eyed Cat’” notes Cash.

At the conclusion of the album lies Hank Snow’s tongue-twisting road-dog song, I’ve Been Everywhere. As Cash powers into the chorus, you could sense that he wasn’t done racking up the miles. Sadly, he didn’t have as many left as we all would’ve liked.