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)

-- Hobart Rowland

American Recordings

American Recordings's publicity machinery touts the importance of Sutras, Donovan's first studio effort in 13 years, with the aid of a John Lennon quote meant to establish the timeless relevance of hippy-pop's twee-est practitioner. In it, the Beatle proclaims that Donovan "is as important and influential as Bob Dylan and we are ... listen, the man's a poet."

Bullshit. No rightfully sane person believes the first part, and as for the poetry part, go ahead, read his poetry (compiled in the hard-to-find book Dry Songs and Scribbles) to disillusion yourself of any overestimation. As for Sutras, the rhymes are of the me/sea variety. If my CD player were capable of tallying word repetition, I'd wager "love," "you" and "heart" would top the list in the high dozens.

So toss the poetry idea. Producer Rick Rubin probably thought it important to add some gravity to the Donovan nobody's heard a peep from in years, but that may have been his central mistake. The mahogany-deep acoustic sparseness that worked so well for Rubin with Johnny Cash backfires here; it's like he's put a marble tabletop on legs of kindling. Donovan has always been the most fun as a goofy cipher warbling slightly oddball pop songs. "Hurdy Gurdy Man," "Sunshine Superman," "Mello Yello," "Season of the Witch," "Jennifer Jupiter" -- you can't not love that stuff.

But there's none of that here. With Rubin missing badly behind the boards, Donovan runs through a mostly somber, magisterial set that won't suffer from misimpressions if I just list the titles: "Everlasting Sea," "The Clear-Browed One," "The Way," "Deep Peace," "Nirvana," "The Evernow," "Universe Am I" and the tragically stupid pun "High Your Love." The only place where Donovan doesn't bore the hell out of you is with the love songs (the few that sound like they're addressed to people, rather than the whole groovin' universe), especially "Please Don't Bend." Elsewhere, Rubin and his subject get lost in the foggy question of just what it is that Donovan might have to offer us these days. (* 1/2)

-- Brad Tyer

CDs are rated on a one to five star scale.

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Hobart Rowland
Brad Tyer
Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky