Album reviews: Johnny Cash|Liars|Willie Campbell

Johnny Cash. Picture: Getty
Johnny Cash. Picture: Getty
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The 1980s are commonly regarded as a low point in Johnny Cash’s career, a shiny decade when his espousal of the old country ways was considered at the very least deeply unfashionable, if not downright obsolescent, and certainly not marketable.

Johnny Cash: out among the stars

Legacy, £14.99

Rating: * * *

Producer Billy Sherrill, an exponent of the countrypolitan style in vogue at the time, was recruited to apply a bit of pop polish to this old warhorse but the material they recorded in 1981 and 1984, now unearthed to form Out Among The Stars, was ultimately rejected by Cash’s label Columbia.

A decade later, the wheel of fortune turned again when Cash took up with a producer, Rick Rubin, who loved him just the way he was. The American Recordings albums they made together secured his cultural and commercial rehabilitation up to and beyond his death in 2003 and surely paved the way for the liberation of these recordings, compiled by his son John Carter Cash and now deemed acceptable for release by Sony’s catalogue division.

With Cash’s stock as high as it ever was, one wonders what was so objectionable to his label at the time. Cash enshrines a robust tradition and mostly sticks to his guns here, duetting with wife June Carter Cash on two tracks and his old pal Waylon Jennings on a spontaneous, conversational version of the Hank Snow song I’m Movin’ On.

You can hear the occasionally awkward attempts to soup up his out-of-time style, but there is pleasure to be had even in the mawkish ballad After All, while the perky delivery and polished gospel backing vocals on I Drove Her Out Of My Mind work in counterpoint to its dark tale of murder-suicide.

He is in fine storytelling voice throughout, even on the disposable If I Told You Who It Was, about a fan encounter with a female country star. Lead single She Used To Love Me A Lot resonates as deeply as his later recordings, its lyrical yearning for new beginnings reflecting Cash’s situation at the time, as he wrenched free from drugs again. Of the two Cash originals, Call Your Mother is sound advice for any boy or girl, here with a morose twist in the tale, while the personal I Came To Believe sits humbly with his other faith testimonials.

This may not be the place for Cash virgins to start their collection but it is a worthy addition to the canon.


Liars: Mess

Mute, £13.99

Rating: * * *

The New York trio of Angus Andrew, Aaron Hemphill and Julian Gross are restless musical buccaneers, always reacting against their previous bout of exploratory weirdness. Mess, ironically, is among their more focused and accessible albums, comprising a suite of industrial-strength electronica, with a certain Teutonic command to Andrew’s distorted vocals on the likes of forceful mantra Mess On A Mission. Gradually the music quietens and disquiets, moving through the sinister shudder of Boyzone and baleful throb of Perpetual Village before lulling you to an unsettled sleep with the woozy Left Speaker Blown.

Willie Campbell: Dalma

Ceòl’s Craic, Web only

Rating: * * *

Back in the late 1990s, Willie Campbell fronted Glasgow-based indie teen prospects Astrid. When those prospects didn’t pan out, he returned to his native Lewis, but fans of his former group will recognise the sunny melodicism in his first Gaelic solo album. Grunnd Na Mara is as good an example as any of how Campbell’s two worlds collide, the distinctly folky flavour of the tune rubbing up happily against jangly guitars. And so it goes for much of the album, with a couple of diversions in the shape of Gaelic garage rocker Balach Còir and trad country and western lament Faisg air mo Dhia (“nearer my God to thee”). Dalma will be launched at Ceòl’s Craic, CCA, Glasgow, tonight.



Edinburgh Quartet: Postcard from Nalchik

Delphian, £14.99

Rating: * * * *

This is a really interesting CD by the Edinburgh Quartet. Not so much because a faint Russian connection runs through the trilogy of Haydn’s The Joke Quartet (written with a Russian dedication), Prokofiev’s 2nd String Quartet, and Shostakovich’s 8th; but because it displays a highly impressive bedding in of an ensemble that has seen successive personnel changes in recent years. The playing – perky and pristine in the Haydn, gutsy and attitudinal in the folk-inspired Prokofiev, movingly sustained in the grim delights of the Shostakovich – is richly considered, rigorously balanced and, ultimately, a musical treat. A real sense of Renaissance.



Gavin Pennycook: Octave Fiddle / Baritone Violin

GCP, web only

Rating: * * * *

Gavin Pennycook has built up his reputation on Scots and Irish fiddle and on the Swedish nyckelharpa. His latest album is uniquely dedicated to the octave fiddle or baritone violin – a regular fiddle strung with purpose-made octave strings, giving a wonderfully earthy tone an octave below normal. The first Scot to win an All-Ireland fiddle title, he includes a fair quotient of Irishry here, not least the triumphal Loftus Jones with which he opens. Accompanied on guitar and mandola by Ewan MacPherson and John Morran, he gives similarly spirited and transformatively big-toned soundings to such familiar tunes as Fyvie Castle, which fairly rumbles out of the foundations, Miss Shepherd and The Gold Ring and Monaghanjigs.

Pennycook’s fiddle conversion jobs on classical pieces are novel enough, with The Hall of the Mountain King becoming a wittily trollish hornpipe, although Beethoven’s Für Elise isn’t done any favours. Back in the tradition, however, The Kerry Woman’s Lament is lent beautifully plangent depth by these resonant strings.



Polar Bear: In Each And Every One

The Leaf Label, £12.99

Rating: * * *

While Aberdeen-bred drummer Sebastian Rochford has remained a pervasive presence at the cutting-edge of the current UK experimental music scene, this particular band has been dormant on the recording front since Peepers (and its subsequent sample-based offshoot with rapper Jyager, Common Ground) in 2010. This disc – or double LP if vinyl is your thing – marks a powerful return for the band, a decade old this year and still featuring Rochford’s ever-inventive drumming alongside the trademark twin saxophone front-line of Pete Wareham and Mark Lockheart, bassist Tom Herbert, and Leafcutter John on electronics and guitar. Rochford’s multi-faceted musical explorations and collaborations are reflected in his more expansive and varied approaches to composition in the new material, but without any dilution of the band’s jagged, squalling soundscapes, raw energy, improvisational flair and

off-the-wall sense of adventure.



Kazakh Anthology

Silk Road House,

web only

Rating: * * * * *

This is a first fruit of a brave new label specialising in the music of Central Asia with notes and recordings by two top ethnomusicologists in the field, Alma Kunanbaeva and her husband Izaly Zemtsovsky. With an accompanying video, this presents songs and instrumental pieces by Kazakhstan’s leading exponents, though one – the ballad singer Shamshat Tolepova – is now sadly deceased. But ‘ballad’ doesn’t begin to cover these lovely songs, while the tone-poems on the two-string dombra lute have a wonderfully sophisticated grandeur.