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Johnny Cash, "American VI: Ain't No Grave" (Lost Highway) 2 stars

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The unlikely collaboration between legendary singer-songwriter Johnny Cash and producer Rick Rubin of Beastie Boys, Run-DMC and Slayer fame was an inspired final act for the career of an American treasure. Rubin's simple recordings highlighted the timeless nature of Cash's inimitable voice and a vision that consistently found God in surprising places, from Folsom Prison to the pit of despair in Trent Reznor's "Hurt." For the most part, the partnership deserves to be remembered as one of the most extraordinary in the history of popular music.

That's for the most part. Sadly, the 2006 collection "American V: A Hundred Highways," released nearly three years after Cash's death in September 2003, was a weak and disappointing coda recorded in the midst of his failing health, while he was grieving the death of his wife and with mortality hanging over every note. Rubin said at the time that it was the last installment of the series. Yet now comes another set of material from those same maudlin sessions, timed to what would have been Cash's 78th birthday.

The man in black started singing about death as a teenager, of course, and he never stopped--though he was most often railing against it, instead of rushing toward it. "There ain't no grave can hold my body down," he sings in this disc's opening line. But it feels less like a boast than a warning about grave robbers.

That once indomitable voice is often reduced to a sad and fragile croak, though as with its predecessor, the weakest part of "American VI: Ain't No Grave" is the song selection. Only three these tunes approach the strength of the best moments on the first four American Recordings albums: Tom Paxton's reflective "Wonder Where I'm Bound," Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" and Ed McCurdy's enduring anti-war anthem, "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream."

Most of the other tracks should have remained as outtakes. Then there are two downright disasters that should have just been erased: a version of "Cool Water," written by Bob Nolan but popularized by Frankie Laine, and a closing cover of the traditional Hawaiian ballad "Aloha Oe," both of which play as pure schmaltz. Yes, Cash liked to play the former in concert, and the latter also was recorded by his former label mate, Elvis Presley. But that doesn't redeem them.

After the first four volumes of American Recordings plus the five-disc "Unearthed" box set, the final chapter of Cash's story already had been thoroughly documented. One epilogue combining the best tracks from volumes V and VI could have been forgiven, if only for archival value. As it is, Rubin seems to be shifting from paying tribute to exploiting, and we can only hope that trend ends here.

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5 Comments

You need to check your facts. Rubin didn't say that the fifth album was the last; in fact, he said that of the material Cash was recording in the final days, there were two albums. He divided them, he said, in to despondent songs about mortality and uplifting songs about eternity. Knowing this, I've been waiting for this album for a few years now, and I'm glad to see its release.

I am kind of shocked you don't like this album. I didn't like the last American recording but this one sounds fantastic to me. Especially the opening track. His voice is weathered but certainly not a croak. This is a great album.

This album is amazing! You are a jerk and you need to educate yourself on what good music is.

Jim, oh, Jim,

At the time of the release of American V, Rubin clearly said that there will be a sixth album. A quick reference would reveal this to you. Meanwhile, describing both V and VI as schmaltz demonstrates not only your staggering lack of perspective (let me guess - you think Green Day produces the most profound music this side of fried ice cream), but also your deep confusion when it comes to the nuances of the the words you throw around.

While I certainly don't want to echo the rather angry, disaffected, and downright idiotic tone of some above, I think Nick does have a point about your calling Cash's rendering of "Aloha Oe" "schmaltz." In the past, Jim, you've used that word to accurately describe everything from '80s hair-metal ballads to some of the more throw-away-y songs on Dylan's Modern Times. In this case, though, I don't think it works.

I'm not saying you're an idiot for not liking the song (as with any music on which we disagree, it's your loss!). But let's really look at schmaltzy music, which is, by definition, excessively sentimental. Is Cash's rendition of "Aloha Oe," in your opinion, excessively sentimental? I sure don't hear it. If there was a string swell a la the Beatles' "Good Night," or if Cash were singing whilst strumming a ukulele, then, yeah, I think the word "schmaltz" would be à propos.

But it's not; like most of the American recordings, it's Cash and his guitar. And he's saying goodbye. It's neither overly sad nor overtly happy; it's just life (and death) the way Cash sees (and sings) it. To call that kind of farewell "schmaltz" is a rather indicting accusation against a guy whose career was, for the most part, devoid of such excessive sentimentality. If it were a fair accusation, I'd back you 100% (like I said, you were right about My Guy Dylan's descent into schmaltz on his last proper album). That's not what this is, however. You simply dislike both the song choice and its placement at the end of what is ostensibly the final Johnny Cash album. Fine, and fair enough. But please, you're too talented to try to justify your opinion by applying a logically false critique.

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