Over the course of five mesmerising CDs, Unearthed
shows us just how Johnny Cash's now-legendary handful of recordings for American Records came to be. Four discs feature previously unreleased tracks from the famed Rick Rubin-produced sessions. Through their inconsistencies and quirks (and, more often than not, brilliance), they shed light on how Cash's final records were shaped, edited and produced. Here we get some creative pairings: Fiona Apple providing guest vocals on Cat Stevens' "Father & Son" and the late Joe Strummer duetting with Cash on Bob Marley's "Redemption Song". Neither are the definitive statements that some of Cash's covers from this period are (his glorious takes
on Nick Lowe and Danzig, to name just two), but they're still very much worth hearing.
Most riveting are the numerous traditional numbers, the songs that were clearly closest to the Man in Black's heart. "Banks of the Ohio", Billy Joe Shaver's "Old Chunk of Coal", Stephen Foster's "Hard Times" and the entire disc of previously unreleased gospel tunes are powerful statements, tunes where you feel privileged to hear Cash--despite declining health and failing voice--sing one more time, the way he wanted. The last disc of this monumental set is a "best-of" compilation of tracks that did make it on the American individual discs, a reminder of just how groundbreaking these sessions were. Perhaps the biggest highlight in this awe-inspiring set is its vast liner note, a loving collection of essays and recollections that highlight the history and stories behind this eclectic array of songs. --Jason Verlinde
Did Johnny Cash ever give a bad performance? Even when his voice was gone or the song didn't really suit him, he always gave 100%. This mammoth five CD box of seventy nine tracks from his American Recording sessions will only enhance his legend.
Cash once said he knew about a thousand songs. Particularly on the first CD, starting with a powerful performance of ''Long Black Veil'' this feels like a one man journey through the history of American song. He lived with the likes of ''Understand Your Man'', ''Banks Of The Ohio'' and ''Fifth Man In The Fire'' all his life, and his performances are relaxed, warm and soulful.
There are delights throughout: a towering performance of Tom Waits' ''Down There By The Train'', and a spine tingling take on Neil Young's ''Heart of Gold''. There's a live version of ''Bird On A Wire'' with gorgeous strings which is better than the original. And an entire CD of religious songs from the Christian song book he learnt at his mother's knee.
The material is arranged in roughly chronological order and by CD 3 Cash's voice starts to deteriorate. But this just means that the likes of ''A Singer Of Songs'' and ''Hard Times'' become almost unbearably poignant. When he sings about meeting his maker you feel he knows that time is coming soon.
Only the fifth CD, a best of the American albums, seems superfluous. If you are going to buy this box you will already have ''Solitary Man'' and ''The Man Comes Around''. It's true that there is no ground breaking version of a contemporary song, no fresh triumph like ''The Mercy Seat'' or ''Hurt''. But Cash's rejects are better than most artists' greatest hits.
Listen. You might be nervous about spending money on a big box set. But you're a Johnny Cash fan, right? You want to hear his gritty version of Steve Earle's ''Devil's Right Hand'' don't you? There's only one way to get it... --Nick Reynolds
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