Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews
Rosanne Cash – The List – Manhattan
Published on October 21, 2009
Rosanne Cash – The List – Manhattan 509996 96576 2 7, 40:19 ****:
(Rosanne Cash – vocals, guitar; John Leventhal – organ, bass, dobro, guitar, harmonica, mandolin, percussion, drums, harmonium, Wurlitzer piano, tic-tac bass, producer, arranger; Joe Bonadio and Shawn Pelton – drums; Rick DePofi – piano, bass clarinet, co-producer; Zev Katz and Tim Luntzel – upright bass; Curtis King, Kenny Williams and James D-Train Williams – backing vocals; Chelsea Crowell – harmony vocals; Bruce Springsteen – vocals (track 3); Jeff Tweedy – vocals (track 8); Rufus Wainwright – vocals (track 11) Elvis Costello – vocals (track 6; The Mels – strings)
Lists. We all make them. Grocery lists on the refrigerator. To-do lists next to the computer. Weekend chores written on post-it notes. Rosanne Cash has a list as well and its immediacy brings memories, nostalgia, a sense of history, and family identity.
Cash’s 12th studio effort, The List, is a first for the country artist: a covers album that showcases Cash’s interpretative abilities. The List was inspired by several important events. Back in 1973, when Cash was 18 and traveling with Johnny Cash, her famous father became alarmed by her lack of country music knowledge and created a list of 100 essential country songs, which ranged from folk ballads, Southern blues, rockabilly and gospel to modern and traditional country material. Cash was prompted by her dad to study them, learn them and understand them. Rosanne Cash brought that list out again while she was promoting her 2006 song cycle, Black Cadillac, which was a personal reflection on the loss of her parents, Johnny Cash and her mother Vivian Liberto, as well as her stepmother June Carter Cash. All three passed away in a two year period. When Cash slipped some of the tunes from her father’s list into her concert repertoire there was an instantaneous and strong audience response.So Rosanne Cash comes full circle now with The List, stringing all of the strands of her life as one: past, present and future: posterity, heritage and ageless expectation. The twelve tracks form an artistic translation of her father’s honesty and devotion that have become Rosanne Cash’s inheritance. The record is a graceful and preserving excursion that gazes backward as it also demonstrates Rosanne Cash’s forward movement as a musician.
Listening to Rosanne Cash’s newest foray is pure revelation. Anyone who has heard her previous releases knows she has explored musical territory far outside country restrictions, sometimes rejecting any reverence for tradition with stabs of synth pop, alternative folk and even cocktail lounge jazz. The List, on the other hand, is a statement of renewal: cleaner, more direct and far less cathartic than other outings. This time out Cash centers on her performance: listening to her voice is like hearing Rosanne Cash for the first time. Its evident she is singing her heart out on every cut.
And she’s not alone: first and foremost is multi-instrumentalist, producer, engineer and husband, John Leventhal, who has also worked with Rodney Crowell, Shawn Colvin and many others. Leventhal is a gifted collaborator: his arranging perfectly renders compositions that are familiar but sound fresh. And his guitar playing that is featured throughout is archetypal but also modern, capturing but not copying great stylists such as Chet Atkins, James Burton and Clarence White. Finally, Leventhal’s production is seeped in Nashville conventions while complementing the program with unique touches.
The collection is broken between Cash solo numbers and duets with likeminded artists who also have firm inclinations toward handed-down music. The inaugural partnership features Bruce Springsteen on Hal David and Paul Hampton’s "Sea of Heartbreak," a bright pop piece that ticks along with a brisk beat and calmly measured vocals. Springsteen’s baritone adds an emotional catch that grounds the otherwise burnished arrangement. Cash gives a nice spin to Harlan Howard’s relationship narrative "Heartaches By the Number," backed by Elvis Costello’s restrained voice. Leventhal’s electric guitar takes command with economical and effective riffs that are balanced by his underlying dobro and mandolin. The third duet is a mid-tempo, lightly plucky version of the oft-covered murder ballad "Long Black Veil." Cash does lead vocal duties (retaining the gender-specific, first-person account) while Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy provides aptly ghost-like harmonies that are punctuated by Rick DePofi’s minimally-distorted bass clarinet. The concluding duet comes on Merle Haggard’s ode to farewells, "Silver Wings," in which Rufus Wainwright displays an uncharacteristically subdued contribution.
There are various distinguished Cash solo highlights. Cash’s voice is breathtaking on the proverbial blues "Motherless Children," where Cash’s vocals are evenly offset by acoustic guitar, mandolin and feathered fiddle. There are dozens of versions – everyone from Eric Clapton, Steve Miller and The Staple Sisters have attempted it – but Cash creates her own rendition by pulling together lyrics from different readings and using an arrangement that emphasizes back porch acoustics.
Cash’s adoption of Hank Cochran’s breakup story "She’s Got You" is another memorable variation. Cash admits she was initially intimidated to try singing the Patsy Cline hit, but she carried on and the result is a sophisticated country crooner where Cash suggests Cline’s angelic intonation while she sings about holding onto heirlooms of romance while her man holds another woman in his arms. One more tune that was a challenge was Bob Dylan’s sensitively oblique memorial to lost love, "Girl from the North Country," because Johnny Cash and Dylan sang it jointly on record and on television. Cash and Leventhal, however, return it to Dylan’s folk roots with an arrangement that stresses acoustic guitar, mandolin and harmonica with just a hint of organ. Cash relates the tale of a young girl who "once was a true love of mine," prominently maintaining the male protagonist’s perspective, as Leventhal lays out a slow folk/country tempo. Cash ends with a further ancestral tie, the Carter Family standard "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow," which proves Cash’s most personal realization due to the piece’s emotional significance, since Helen, Maybelle and June Carter were catalysts for Cash’s emergence as a musician.
The List has a multitude of moods and tones that are abundantly and fittingly customized to frame Cash’s nuanced voice and to also echo the themes that extend from hardship to affection and from comfort to the damage of time’s passage. While many producers might have chosen strings or other studio add-ons, Leventhal appropriately keeps the proceedings uncontrived and unencumbered: Cash’s voice is recorded naturally and closely with a Neumann U67 microphone, while the instruments are thoughtfully but judiciously dressed with a minimum of reverb, compression and other production maneuvers.
1. Miss the Mississippi and You
2. Motherless Children
3. Sea of Heartbreak (with Bruce Springsteen)
4. Take These Chains from my Heart
5. I’m Movin’ On
6. Heartaches by the Number (with Elvis Costello)
7. 500 Miles
8. Long Black Veil (with Jeff Tweedy)
9. She’s Got You
10. Girl from the North Country
11. Silver Wings (with Rufus Wainwright)
12. Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow
— Doug Simpson