The current wave of Greatest Hits / Best Of / Essential / Whatever We Have the Licensing Rights To collections that have flooded stores are a typification of the modern popular music market, a furious label cash-grab at the expense of the baby boomers and others who long for the nostalgia of their formidable years. The smashing success of Beatles 1 sent a message that was just loud enough for label execs to notice that people will buy into the past as long as it’s being sold. There’s seemingly a new Dylan bootleg or reissue on the shelf with every passing week. For those who missed their halcyon period about three days ago, Semisonic has a hits collection available. There are three separate collections still in print that celebrate the hallowed oeuvre of Norman Greenbaum, for crying out loud. (For the record, “Spirit in the Sky” is track one on two of them; though the other does attempt to cover its tracks by including a demo version in addition to including the original at track two.) If it wasn’t for the Beatles, as well as the recent raiding and pillaging of Bob Dylan’s catalogue, Johnny Cash might have the distinction of having his name slapped on the most stuff in the history of popular music. There is no shortage of Johnny Cash material out there for public consumption, which might cause you to ask, “why should I buy this collection?” Well, the answer to that lies in your degree of curiosity, for as many choices as there are, there’s probably one out there that fits exactly what you’re looking for. And this one isn’t a bad place to start.
J.R. Cash’s music has been sliced and diced into just about every combination imaginable, with sets covering his different eras, his spells with different labels, his live albums or his forays into different genres. The Legend of Johnny Cash, the latest comer to the party (and also confoundingly sharing a key title descriptor with the four-CD box set The Legend, though the two are completely unrelated) is unique for the sole fact that it is none of those things. It is the first concise collection to be released since his death that attempts to cover the span of his entire career, tipped off by the fact that at least four different record labels are cited in the album’s liner notes. It supplants Columbia’s two-disc Essential Johnny Cash set from 2002, which, unlike this compilation, featured nothing more recent than his guest starring spot on U2’s “The Wanderer” from 1993’s Zooropa. The Legend of Johnny Cash, a single-disc set that is presented ideally, in chronological order, spares a half-dozen tracks for his late-era work with Rick Rubin at American Recordings. Not the least of these are his covers of Hank Snow’s 1962 hit “I’ve Been Everywhere” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” the latter of which went great distances in cultivating him a whole new audience and bridging a massive generational gap.
While obsessives may have their token qualms about the song choices, there is very little to argue with in both the selection and presentation. Cash’s debut single “Cry! Cry! Cry!” opens the disc, and is followed by a parade of his most memorable tunes, with “Folsom Prison Blues” (and its legendary “I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die” lyric) stacked right next to “I Walk the Line” and the indomitable “Get Rhythm.” The June Carter-penned “Ring of Fire,” with its mariachi horn arrangement, very appropriately precedes “Jackson,” one of the pair’s most endearing duets. The album also cherry picks his live San Quentin version of Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue,” framed by the hoots and hollers of his captive audience. Cash’s popularity as a solo artist waned significantly for a period encompassing much of the last quarter of the century, and that gap is accurately represented. There are only two tracks featured from 1971 to 1993, one of which is his titular collaboration with the Highwaymen, the collective that also included Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. “Highwayman” wears its 1980’s production values on its sleeve; it and “The Wanderer” are the only tunes on the album that are out of keeping with his traditional sound. The Rubin numbers do have a modern polish to them, but for the most part their presentation is sparse and minimal, as to not overwhelm Cash’s weakened baritone.
There have been literally dozens of compilations dedicated to Johnny Cash over the years, but novices and newbies looking for an easy Johnny Cash 101 primer will find that The Legend of Johnny Cash fits the bill just about perfectly. There is little if any at all to fault about the track selection. All of his most well-known songs are here, and it gives about as strong a cross-section of his career as you’re likely to find. It does have the advantage of being the only one so far that pulls from his entire career, thanks to the wonderfully convoluted world of licensing rights. Granted, with a man who was so prolific and larger-than-life, a single disc is hardly sufficient in gaining a accurate point of view, but most will see that this collection is not a means to an end. Those who find their curiosity piqued with a few listens to this collection (and who wouldn’t, really) will find themselves wanting to upgrade their Cash catalogue. At that point I might suggest looking for the full-concert reissues of his legendary live albums, At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin, as well as a combination of the previously-mentioned The Legend box set and any of his later-era American Recordings material.
There is such an overwhelming amount of Johnny Cash music available to the public that it becomes hard to pin down which or how many albums a particular person might want. The hypothetical combinations are endless. Those looking for a Beatles 1-esque starter kit will find a lot to like about The Legend of Johnny Cash, it serves its purpose about as well as one could imagine. The commercial and critical success of Walk the Line will likely send more than its share of inquisitive folks shuffling to the store next door or into the mall adjoining the cineplex looking for readily consumable Man In Black collections. Being that the soundtrack album is comprised solely of performances from the film, this compilation will become a primary option for many of those neophytes, and it’s perfect for them. As good as the movie performances are, it’s no substitute for the real thing. Accept no imitations. Until you know better, at least.
Alice Cooper – Breadcrumbs EP
Few frontmen of rock will ever be as enigmatic and as timeless as Alice Cooper
For a large number of Alice Cooper fans who didn’t experience everyone’s favorite snake-adorned shock rocker at the height of his powers through the ’70s, most probably were introduced to Cooper through 1989’s hair-metal infused generational breakout album Trash. That was at least, my introduction to Vincent Furnier, at the age of 9 years old, seeking for something to satiate my love of hair metal and shock rock. Trash was everything Bon Jovi’s New Jersey was- big, radio-friendly- but had that added sense of danger and darkness that didn’t come with the pretty side of hair metal. However, as sure as songs like “House of Fire“, “Bed of Nails“, and the ubiquitous hit “Poison”, are still great today, long-time Alice Cooper fans know that Cooper is at his most enthralling is when he taps into his garage rock lineage, cut from the same mold that was paved by bands like the MC5.
So for those born in the early 80s like myself, the initial foray into the world of Alice Cooper meant that you had to work your way back into this long-running discography to find the rich, often timeless work Cooper is best known for. In 2019 Alice Cooper himself is working his way back on his latest EP, the aptly titled Breadcrumbs. The 6-song EP finds Cooper revisiting music and artists connected thematically by what ties them all together- the Motor City. This Detroit-centric EP features Alice Cooper’s take on songs by Suzi Quatro, The Dirtbombs, Motown soul singer Shorty Long, and of course, The MC5 (the EP also features guest guitar and vocal work from Wayne Kramer). Included in the mix are a reworked version of the 2003 Alice Cooper song “Detroit City” and one new cut, “Go Man Go”.
On his reworked “Detroit City”, the song is given a rawer makeover, sounding far less produced than the original. Gone are the orchestral overdubs with the song relying more on the loud bluesy guitars- perhaps the way it was meant to sound. Suzi Q’s “Your Mama Won’t Like Me” stays fairly faithful to the original, but Quatro’s vocal sneer is replaced with.. well, Alice Cooper’s vocal sneer. MC5’s “Sister Anne” is almost as great as the original 1971version, with the added benefit of today’s production qualities.
The EP’s one new track, “Go Man Go”, is very much Detroit, and very much Alice Cooper. It’s rock n’ roll roots are coated with a little bit of rockabilly, a little bit of garage, a lot of attitude. Like this EP, the track should be a precursor of Alice Cooper’s anticipated next album. The hope is that he continues this work of keeping things dirty rock n’ roll as the results are more often than not, pretty great.
Few frontmen of rock will ever be as enigmatic and as timeless as Alice Cooper. Breadcrumbs is a noble effort meant to tease and build anticipation than satisfy your craving for all new Alice Cooper material. It’s done just that, hinting at what could be around the corner. On top of which it shows that there are few rock stars who will ever reach the status and longevity of everyone’s favorite rock n’ roll snake charmer.
Goo Goo Dolls – Miracle Pill
The Goo Goo Dolls have always just written good music for people who cared only that the music was good
One of the most remarkable things about the Goo Goo Dolls is their steadfast consistency amongst the ever-changing backdrop of popular music. Six years ago when they released Magnetic, I wrote that the band remained unchanged in the face of their supposed “waning popularity” in the eyes of pop culture and radio charts. It’s true that many of their contemporaries that made it big alongside them in the late 1990s are long gone, but for the Goos, they’ve quietly continued to be above everything else, themselves, just older, wiser, and continuingly more refined. Miracle Pill is their 12th studio album and is the natural progression from 2016’s Boxes. Like their previous release, Miracle Pill continues their musical evolution away from alternative rock to the more serene territory of adult contemporary. Sure, it may sound like a bad thing, but like everything the Goos have done over the past 25 years, it’s supremely confident and composed.
They may not write songs with the caustic bite like “Here Is Gone” anymore, but they have been finding comfort in the more introspective pop-strewn melodies found in songs like “Lights”. Similarly, in the new album’s lead single and title track, the Goos tap into bouncy, easy-to-digest pop empowerment. Songs like “Indestructible” show that the band haven’t put down their guitars just yet, constructing songs that are still fond of their alternative rock roots but have found comfort in grander, more expansive sounds.
The album’s best moments are when the Goo Goo Dolls unashamedly tug on the heartstrings like they’ve done so many times before. The quiet jangly nature of “Over You” does this particularly well, while the bigger, electronic-infused arena rock of “Lost” shows that this type of music is just done extremely poorly by bands like Imagine Dragons. “Autumn Leaves” is a throwback to the kind of songs found on Let Love In and Dizzy Up The Girl, sounding organic and wistful, while the closing of “Think It Over” is the kind of song they’ve been hinting at since Something For The Rest Of Us. It’s part quintessential Goos, but contemporary and timeless at the same time.
Credit to the Robby Takac songs of the album too- “Step In Line”, “Life’s a Message”- both some of the finest songs Takac has written. He is often cast in the shadow of John Rzeznik’s more recognizable sound, but on Miracle Pill, his work is the best its sounded since Dizzy.
The Ringer recently wrote a piece titled ‘The Goo Goo Dolls Were Never the Cool Kids, but They’re Still Standing’. I echoed these sentiments in that Magnetic review years ago, but if there was anything long time Goo Goo Dolls fans know is that the band were never concerned about popularity or being “cool”. The problem with being cool in music is that it fades. The Goo Goo Dolls have always just written good music for people who cared only that the music was good. Not much has changed in that sense, and really, that’s much better than being cool.