Johnny Cash
American Recordings

In 1994, just as his myth was in danger of being destroyed by too many mediocre releases, Johnny Cash was rescued from the country-music trash heap and restored to the sort of honorary status afforded those rare musicians who survive -- much less prosper -- in middle age. Sounding like the devil's own kin on the Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings, Cash sang of retribution and redemption; he asked God to wash the blood off his callused hands as he strode through a decimated landscape. American Recordings may not have sold well, but it served a more important purpose: It proved that Cash was more than a mere icon, that he wasn't just some vestige of another era clinging to state-fair stages and hall-of-fame banquets but a viable performer whose age only served to inform and deepen his modern-day output.

That said, the new Unchained, also Rick Rubin produced, isn't the intimate, unexpected masterpiece that American Recordings was. Rather, the CD exists somewhere between Cash's best modern output (Gone Girl, Water from the Wells of Home, American Recordings) and his most pedestrian (The Baron, The Mystery of Life, Patriot), between living up to the myth and surrendering to it. The song choices this time around make less sense. The cover of Beck's "Rowboat" seems to exist solely for the purpose of lookee-here novelty; "Memories Are Made of This" lacks the resonance it should have had; and "Sea of Heartbreak" is so lightweight that it threatens to float off the disc.

With Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers -- and, at other times, Flea and Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood -- behind him, Cash sounds more playful than he did on American Recordings. But lost are that album's immediacy and explicitness, the sense that Cash had this music brewing inside him and would explode without an outlet. While Unchained burns with an energy efforts such as Patriot lacked, most of the time the spark is prefab -- the sound of Petty and his boys playing behind a legend, the thrill that comes with such a pleasure and the flatness of the "authenticity" that comes with such reverence.

There's still some enjoyment to be found in the fact that Cash can still rock like a sumbitch. His own "Mean Eyed Cat" recalls his days as a Sun Records rebel -- the only guy as scary as Jerry Lee Lewis. And the title track hints at the retrospection that made 1978's Gone Girl his finest release since the early '60s. The strings-and-piano arrangement is sparse, and the song simply ends -- no fade out, just a period. It's too bad, then, that Rubin chose to end things with the rockabilly travelogue "I've Been Everywhere," a throwaway in which Cash reads off a few hundred points on a map like he's in a race against time. But the only thing chasing Cash is himself. (** 1/2)

-- Robert Wilonsky

Sub Pop

Crying comes easily for Sebadoh's Lou Barlow. He's a confessional type who's pickled his group's seven-year catalog of under-produced junk-pop in gallons of his salty tears, from the gawky Freed Man debut through to 1994's incisively self-downing Bakesale, which featured not only Barlow's tastiest melodies to that point, but the coolest cover art of the year (as attention grabbers, babies are always a safe bet, especially one diligently fishing around in a toilet).

Following the rather recent radio success of "Natural One," the somewhat chipper single by Barlow's Folk Implosion side project, a few hastily predicted the emergence of a cheerier Lou. Those who did might want to go back to laying odds on Lemonhead Evan Dando's staying clean for the next six months. On Sebadoh's superb new CD Harmacy, Barlow is more heartbroken than ever. Heck, he was even game for bawling for a publicity photo. Or maybe he'd just laughed himself to tears for the camera. It's hard to tell.

Such pressing questions of emotive authenticity (is Lou really that vulnerable?) are what continue to make Sebadoh more than just the sum of Barlow's efforts to keep the syrupy ballads coming while maintaining below-ground credibility with amateurish production and making short concessions to punk anarchy with gnarly, untuned guitars and over-fast tempos. For like many crybaby types, Barlow is concerned with what others might make of his soft side. As a result, he's wasted large chunks of his time in a kind of noise-fixated haze of self-denial.

That said, Harmacy is Sebadoh's least noise-fixated effort yet, and easily the group's best attempt to feed Barlow's reverence for the craftsmanship of the Eagles, Bread and the Moody Blues to a skeptical indie-rock (Barlow hates that term, even if Sebadoh did have a hand in inventing it) audience. Although a semblance of disposability taints racket such as "Love to Fight," "Mind Reader" and "Worst Thing" (all three written by bassist Jason Loewenstein, who's obviously been stricken by a debilitating Pixies virus), ultimately Harmacy is defined by Barlow's wimpy, emotive interludes.

Gorgeous and daunting, "On Fire," "Too Pure" and "Perfect Way" are as close as Barlow has gotten to genuine wounded majesty; rarely have his injuries been so well recorded. But Sebadoh truly arrives with "Willing to Wait," a masterpiece of defeat in which Barlow serenades an ex-flame amidst a swell of synthetic strings: "But oh, when I saw you again / A beautiful friend opened up her heart and let me in." No doubt about it, Lou's a goner. Again. (*** 1/2)

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