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V/A - A Boy Named Sue: Johnny Cash Revisited

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Artist: V/A

Album: A Boy Named Sue: Johnny Cash Revisited

Label: Trikont

Review date: Jul. 18, 2002

A blunt, naïve stylus drops artlessly onto a warped, scratched 45. A hollow, midrange-heavy speaker crackles to life for the first time. The Desert God speaketh.

I broke in my first turntable with a copy of Johnny Cash singing “The Little Drummer Boy,” a record my mom kicked down knowing it was fucked beyond any further damage my system could inflict. This was the first record I ever owned. So, if you’ve gotta blame an entertainer for my wide-open range of psychological maladies, you’ll have to go back to the Man In Black. Cash’s voice is a great emotional dehumidifier.

To understate things considerably: J. Cash sings of heartache and loneliness. No matter how sugary, all his material dissolves beyond recognition into his black coffee voice. He writes a few lyrics here and there, but his marketable skill has always been almost hopelessly parched interpretation. You wouldn’t catch, say, Leonard Cohen even fantasizing about the fringes of amphetamine psychosis and profound isolation Cash’s characters navigate with detached ease. No imitators could hope to come close. They’d be immensely lucky to transcend novelty in the attempt.

This collection brings together a heterogeneous crew of Germans, performing pop, electronic, country and reggae versions of songs written or defined by Cash. And there’s a surreal biographical tribute from Alvaro, en espanol. I’ve nothing to add about that one.

To their credit, most of these menches and menchettes ride Cash’s wave without affecting friendliness with the master or stooping to cutesy parody.

A few contribute more-or-less faithful covers, such as Smokestack Lightnin’ (“Ring Of Fire,” which can only be faulted for its obnoxious lyrical misemphasis) and Cow (a charmingly innocent duet on “Jackson.”) Hack Mack Jackson re-recreates “Rusty Cage” with more bubbling vitriol than’s to be found in Cash’s disturbingly calm version on Unchained, but less than in Soundgarden’s Zeppelin-on-crystal original.

A handful of these covers are worth hearing strictly on their own merits, outside the tributary context. Guz’s propulsive “Guess Things Happen That Way” sounds like Mike Ness jamming with Pere Ubu, and The Tilman Rossmy Quartet and Whils transform “Orange Blossom Special” and “Thirteen,” respectively, into sultry, elegant Teutonic pop, with just enough of that subliminal sadomasochism that makes German culture so compelling.

I could see myself passing this along to a younger relative one distant day, though I’m not sure it would do the snapper enough psychic damage to be worth my sacrifice of Bernadette La Hengst’s electro-boppin’ “Ein Madchen Namens Gerd.”

By Emerson Dameron

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