Rhapsody Streamnotes: March 19, 2014

Since folding Jazz Prospecting and Recycled Goods into this column, the number of records has increased, with this being the most voluminous Rhapsody Streamnotes ever: 109 records. One might think that's because this covers the longest stretch of time, but that's only marginally true: the last 16 days of February, when I was traveling to and from Florida, produced zilch. They contribute here only in that I played quite a bit of Johnny Cash on the road, which set my mind to thinking about going through his Columbia LPs.

I'm not all that surprised that I didn't find many A-list albums in that list. He only sustained the high level of his Sun records for a couple years -- pills maybe, or it could be that Columbia didn't care about LPs as long as Cash pumped out three per year (which, by the way, almost never hit 30 minutes). More surprising to me was that so few of the albums were bad (in that respect it probably helped that I skipped most of the holiday and gospel records). For a guy with a deep, unique voice, his was remarkably pliable -- a trait he shared with few peers, Louis Armstrong for one -- and that gave him a distinctive edge on damn near any song.

It's tempting to conclude that Cash was a singles artist, and that was true enough for the 1950s, but from 1960 on he wasn't really: I count 8 number one country singles from 1960 on (not bad until you consider Ronnie Milsap had 40), with 22 more cracking the top ten. And those numbers drop dramatically after 1973: only one number one ("One Piece at a Time" -- not his song but perfect for him) and only three more in the top ten (one of those with Waylon). Still, go with compilations to get started. The best is Columbia/Legacy's 1992 3-CD The Essential Johnny Cash (1955-1983), with 75 songs vs. 36 for the 2002's 2-CD The Essential Johnny Cash. (Both include Sun tracks, 14-8 is my initial count, the dividing line a bit murky without documentation, but the effect is to pull "Ring of Fire" and "Orange Blossom Special" into the shortened first disc.) On the other hand, I've been playing Columbia/Legacy's 2005 4-CD The Legend lately. I don't especially approve of the thematic organization, but find each disc delightful.

After leaving Columbia, Cash recorded a few albums for Mercury, then enjoyed a comeback with Rick Rubin's American Recordings, six volumes 1994-2003, some trickling out after Cash's death, plus the 5-CD box Unearthed, only one of which is redundant. I still have some loose ends in the early and late Cash, something to save for later.

Quite a few good records in the top section, even if most of them are jazz. I still haven't heard much non-jazz I care for this year -- even among Michael Tatum's A Downloader's Diary picks -- seven below, only one A- (New Mendicants, though he was also the one who tipped me to Laura Cantrell). With Christgau MIA, critics like Tatum, Dan Weiss (who's reviewed 9 records below), and Jason Gubbels (10) become all the more important (and I might add Matt Rice, whose tip on Knifefight led me to Serengeti, which, as it turned out, he had already reviewed). Still, none of those critics have weighed in on Adrian Raso and Fanfare Ciocarlia -- the sort of record which gets a quick high HM here but might rise a notch with prolonged exposure. By the way, Tatum and Gubbels are moving their review columns to the relaunched Odyshape -- sad news for me as it means Tatum won't be gracing my blog in the future, but a useful consolidation for everyone else.

Of course, about half of the new records are jazz, and those marked [cd] are driven by my ever-dwindling mail queue -- whereas I try to only listen to promising non-jazz records, I often have to take what I can get when it comes to jazz. Still, I've spent more time looking for what I didn't get, adding five to the A-list (Halvorson, Hollenbeck, Iyer, Mehldau, Reed). Also found some I had higher hopes for (especially Roscoe Mitchell, who placed in my top ten last year). All documented below, albeit briefly.

These are short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, accumulated since my last post along these lines, back on February 12. Past reviews and more information are available here (4523 records).

New Releases (More or Less)

Juhani Aaltonen: To Future Memories (2010 [2013], TUM): In recent polls, I've written his name in as best flute player around, and there's plenty here (and elsewhere) to justify those votes, but his main instrument is tenor sax, and I'd be happier if he focused more on it. With pianist Iro Haarla, two bassists, a drummer and a percussionist, this is a bit on the moody side but nearly triumphs anyway. Also has two stretches of exceptional flute. B+(***) [cd]

Against Me!: Transgender Dysphoria Blues (2014, Total Treble): Punkish group formed in Florida in 1997 by guitarist-singer Tom Gabel, who has since changed him name (and I know not what else) to Laura Jane Grace, not that those changes have done much for his/her voice, other than to provide something novel to rant about. B+(**)

Ariel Alexander & Jon Bremen: Street Cries (2013 [2014], self-released, EP): Sax and guitar respectively, although both are also credited with programming, and the group includes keyboards, bass, drums, and voice (Sara Leib). An intelligent groove record, its slightness matched by its brevity: 5 cuts, 26:07. B+(*) [cd]

Arild Andersen/Tommy Smith/Paolo Vinaccia: Mira (2012 [2014], ECM): Norwegian bassist, name appears before the title whereas the others come after, so maybe I should demote them, but it would be real foolish not to feature the great Scottish tenor saxophonist, and of course it never hurts to give the drummer some. A little restrained compared to the same trio's Live at Belleville (2008), but very strong in spots. B+(***) [dl]

Katy B: Little Red (2014, Columbia): Kathleen Brien, aka Baby Katy, Brit dance pop phenom, second album, nothing grabs me as special first spin through although every beat is likely to sink in with enough reiteration. Deluxe edition adds five songs, extending 48:11 to 68:31, with little loss (or gain). B+(***)

Jeff Ballard Trio: Time's Tales (2013 [2014], Okeh): Drummer, best known in the Brad Mehldau Trio although he has about 80 credits since 1988. First album with his name up front, an unconventional trio with guitarist Lionel Loueke and alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon. They flirt with guitar-driven fusion early on, then slow it down and mix up the beat giving the sax more space. B+(***) [cd]

Bruce Barth: Daybreak (2013 [2014], Savant): Mainstream jazz pianist, more than a dozen albums since 1993, this one gets an extra charge from Terell Stafford on trumpet/flugelhorn and, even more so, from Steve Nelson on vibes. B+(**) [cd]

Matt Bauder and Day in Pictures: Nightshades (2013 [2014], Clean Feed): Tenor saxophonist, protégé of Anthony Braxton, has a handful of records including 2010's Day in Pictures, nearly the same quintet (Kris Davis replaces Angelica Sanchez at piano; on both records: Nate Wooley, Jason Ajemian, Tomas Fujiwara). An explosive mix, especially with Davis, but Bauder manages to stay within postbop bounds (what Jason Gubbels describes as "edgy Blue Note circa 1966"). B+(***) [cd]

Dierks Bentley: Riser (2014, Captiol Nashville): "Pretty Girls" is shallow enough for Luke Bryan. "Drunk on a Plane" isn't, but I wouldn't call that an improvement. Bryan may cause people to be miserable, but he doesn't wallow in it. Bentley may aspire to something more, but as his star dims he's less and less convinced it sells. B-

Tyrone Birkett/Emancipation: Postmodern Spirituals: The Promised Land (2013 [2014], Araminta Music): Saxophonist, grew up playing gospel and kept the focus, with wife Paula Ralph Birkett singing on most of the tracks -- she has a classic gospel voice if you're into that sort, but never matches the crisp clarity of the leader's alto sax. B+(**) [cd]

Raoul Björkenheim: Ecstasy (2012 [2014], Cuneiform): Quite possible that the packaging treats this as an eponymous group album, but the LA-born Finnish guitarist is the essential name fronting a group with sax (Pauli Lyytinen), bass (Jori Huhtala), and drums (Markku Ounaskari). Phenomenal guitar player, as you should know by now, and the group can make some noise, but a few off spots leaves this short of its title. B+(***) [dl]

Toni Braxton & Babyface: Love Marriage & Divorce (2014, Motown): Stars of the 1990s softening known as neo-soul, Kenny Edmonds an innovator, Braxton a follower happy to add some sex appeal, but old enough to resort to a themed storyline this time -- and not one they'd claim as their own, as the "starring" credit attests. Still, as fiction I wished they'd come up with a more rewarding relationship, not least because as it is all the fun songs are up front. B+(***)

Laura Cantrell: No Way There From Here (2013 [2014], Thrift Shop): Country-ish singer-songwriter, got noticed on her 2000 debut Not the Tremlin' Kind, but she did seem a little trembly and a decade's worth of records never quite clicked -- closest was 2011's Kitty Wells tribute, which may have helped her focus, but doesn't explain the easy grace of these melodies. A-

Regina Carter: Southern Comfort (2013 [2014], Sony Masterworks): Violinist, won a MacArthur "genius" grant in 2006, the year of her best album to date, I'll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey, and she has finally topped that with another sentimental journey, looping back around her family tree through a series of mostly trad. pieces and casts her into an old fashioned fiddle role, not that it's ever that straightforward. A- [cd]

Neneh Cherry: Blank Project (2014, Smalltown Supersound): Trumpeter Don Cherry's daughter, raised more in Europe than the US, had two sensational hip-hop albums 1989-92, a scattered career given a boost with 2012's The Cherry Thing -- punk anthems backed by a Norwegian avant-jazz trio. That led to an album of remixes, and that led to this collaboration between Cherry and the remixers -- spare electropop that grows on you without ever approximating a hit. B+(***)

Kris Davis Trio: Waiting for You to Grow (2013 [2014], Clean Feed): Pianist, from Canada, got our attention with a series of quartet albums featuring Tony Malaby (2008's Rye Eclipse is the one to seek out), then lately has tried to scale back with intriguing solo and trio albums. This feels like a breakthrough. It helps, of course, to have John Hébert and Tom Rainey on board, but every piece shows us something new, from roughly fractured to delicately melodic. A- [cd]

Michael Dessen Trio: Resonating Abstractions (2013 [2014], Clean Feed): Trombonist, teaches at UC Irvine, third Trio album, with Christopher Tordini on bass and Dan Weiss on drums. Sometimes a bit too abstract, but when they slow down Weiss takes off. B+(**) [cd]

DKV + Mats Gustafsson/Paal Nilssen-Love/Massimo Pupillo: Schl8hof (2011 [2013], Trost): DKV is a Ken Vandermark sax trio, with Kent Kessler on bass and Hamid Drake on drums. They recorded quite a bit 1998-2001, nothing for a long while, then a 7-CD Not Two box set in 2012, Past Present (recorded 2008-11). This doubles them up adding two-thirds of the Thing (Gustafsson, Nilssen-Love) and Pupillo on bass (primarily from Italian rock group Zu) and sends them overboard into avant-noise. B+(**)

Henrik Otto Donner & TUMO: And It Happened . . . the Music of Henrik Otto Donner (2012 [2014], TUM): Donner (1939-2013) composed the music and conducted the strings, with the orchestra (TUMO) conducted by Miko Hassinen, and supplemented by Juhani Aaltonen (tenor sax, alto flute) and Johanna Iivanainen (vocals on 4 of 8 tracks). The orchestra enjoys pushing boundaries, and the saxophonist has some fine moments. B+(**) [cd]

Violeta Ferrer/Raymond Boni: Federico García Lorca (2013 [2014], Fou): Boni plays guitar and harmonica, accompanying 80-year-old Ferrer who reads poetry from Lorca -- in Spanish, I presume, because I'm not catching a word edgewise. That may have something to do with the settings, which emphasize the speech as abstract sound. B+(*) [cd]

Jean-Marc Foussat: L'Oiseau (2011-12 [2014], Fou): French keyboard player, or possibly more accurately electronics -- his AKS and VCS3 synthesizers look more like patchboards, and the sound on this solo effort is what's technically known as "noise" with some bird chirps. I have a pile of his records, but this is a tough place to get acquainted. B [cd]

Jean-Marc Foussat, Sylvain Guérineau & Joe McPhee: Quod (2010 [2014], Fou): Synthesizers, tenor sax, and soprano sax respectively. Two 21-24 minute pieces. The soprano is tuned in more to the synths and can compound the nuissance (maybe "noissance" should be a word), but the tenor steadies things and keeps this interesting. B+(*) [cd]

Jean-Marc Foussat & Ramón Lopez: Ça Barbare, Là! (2012 [2014], Fou): López is a drummer, giving the AKS synth tones and processed voice of Foussat a steadying, which isn't necessarily regular, accompaniment, a big plus. B+(**) [cd]

Jean-Marc Foussat/Simon Hénocq: Nopal (2013 [2014], Fou): Foussat's AKS synth and processed voice again, this time matched against Hénocq's guitars, fairly matched and even complementary noise sources. B+(**) [cd]

Get the Blessing: Lope and Antilope (2013 [2014], Naim Jazz): Bristol [UK] jazz-rock group, bassist and drummer previously in Portishead, plus trumpet (Pete Judge) and sax (Jake McMurchie) -- and guest guitarist Adrian Utley (also from Portishead) -- fourth album since 2009. Steady on the beat, with the horns straying although not quite enough to merit the Ornette Coleman hype. B+(*)

Tord Gustavsen Quartet: Extended Circle (2013 [2014], ECM): Norwegian pianist, satisfies ECM's fetish for quiet understatement but consistently plays well above the norm. Quartet adds the tenor sax of Tore Brunborg to his trio with Mats Eilertsen and Jarle Vespestad. Brunborg also fits the ECM model -- quiet and thoughtful, the results broadly atmospheric -- and again raises the bar (a bit). B+(***) [cdr]

Mary Halvorson Trio: Ghost Loop (2012 [2013], ForTune): Jazz guitarist, probably the most notable arrival of the last decade although I've had all sorts of problems trying to get a handle on her work. This is live in Poland with John Hébert on bass and Ches Smith on drums -- should be a good showcase but remains sketchy. B+(**)

Mary Halvorson/Michael Formanek/Tomas Fujiwara: Thumbscrew (2013 [2014], Cuneiform): Another guitar-bass-drums trio, the obvious difference a bassist who gets out in front more although I'd expect the drummer to be the improvement. Maybe it's just chemistry, as Halvorson works within the fractured rhythmic web but makes more out of it. A- [dl]

Scott Hamilton Quartet: Dean Street Nights (2012 [2014], Woodville): Retro-swing tenor saxophonist with an English pick-up group -- John Pearce, Dave Green, and Steve Brown -- doing what he's been doing for decades: standards plus an original dedicated to Zoot Sims -- the ballads exquisite, but "Cherokee" doesn't quite ignite. B+(**)

Craig Handy: Craig Handy & 2nd Line Smith (2011 [2014], Okeh): Tenor saxophonist, played Coleman Hawkins in the Lester Young cutting match in Altman's Kansas City -- seemed like a break at the time, but he's had a very spotty recording career. He goes back to R&B here, playing Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery, "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "I Almost Lost My Mind" and "Mojo Workin'" -- Dee Dee Bridgewater and Clarence Spady sing one each, Wynton Marsalis handles the trumpet slot, and Helin Riley plays washboard as well as drums. A- [cdr]

Billy Hart Quartet: One Is the Other (2013 [2014], ECM): Veteran drummer, b. 1940, first appeared with Jimmy Smith in 1964 and must have a couple hundred credits since then, but a very scattered record as a leader, at least until this Quartet appeared in 2006 with major contributors Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson plus Ben Street on bass. Elegant postbop, but I'm finding the sax a bit languid, and the cover ("Some Enchanted Evening") misses every point I can think of. B [dl]

John Hollenbeck/Alban Darche/Sébastien Boisseau/Samuel Blaser: JASS (2013 [2014], Yolk): Group name an acronym from the artists' first names, but also a shout out to the Original Dixieland Jass Band. Two horns -- Darche's sax and Blaser's trombone -- backed by bass (Boisseau) and drums (Hollenbeck), the rhythm fragmented and free, an atmosphere that favors the rougher, funnier instrument -- an opportunity that Blaser runs with. A-

Randy Ingram: Sky/Lift (2012 [2014], Sunnyside): Pianist, second album, trio (Matt Clohesy and Jochen Rueckert) plus guitar by Mike Moreno, a nice for for the album's airiness. B+(**) [cd]

Vijay Iyer: Mutations (2013 [2014], ECM): Two solo piano pieces lead off, then for the ten pieces that make up the title series he's joined by a string quartet (two violins, viola, cello), a chamber jazz move that, like so much he's done, defies expectations. A- [dl]

Stan Kenton Alumni Band: Road Scholars Live (2013 [2014], Summit): Kenton died in 1979, and I don't know him or his legacy well enough to make the connections here, but there's enough gray hair in the picture to suggest that they played the man and not some ghost band. Interesting that none of the compositions or arrangements are credited to Kenton. The vocal track, "Stockholm Sweetnin'," is kinda cute. "America the Beautiful" isn't. B [cd]

Knifefight: Knifefight (2013, Anticon, EP): Beans, formerly of Anti-Pop Consortium, with producer Mux Mool (and guest spots for Cities Aviv, Kool AD, and Sub Con), for six tracks, 19:24. B+(***) [bc]

Jonas Kullhammar/Torbjörn Zetterberg/Espen Aalberg: Basement Sessions Vol. 2 (2012 [2014], Clean Feed): Tenor sax-bass-drums trio, follows up a pretty good Vol. 1 released in 2012, and it's not clear why they held this batch back: it consistently hits the sweet spot in free jazz between chaos and beauty. A- [cd]

James Brandon Lewis: Divine Travels (2011 [2014], Okeh): Tenor saxophonist, from Buffalo, second album, a trio with William Parker and Gerald Cleaver, weaving free sax around more traditional patterns. A- [cd]

Lydia Loveless: Somewhere Else (2014, Bloodshot): Very alt country singer: first album, 2011's Indestructible Machine, startled me with its fierceness, and there's some of that here too, but you have to look closer because your initial impression is overwhelmed by how much guitar weight she's put on. B+(**)

Made to Break: Cherchez La Femme (2013 [2014], Trost): One of Ken Vandermark's groups, third album since 2011, with Christof Kurzmann manipulating electronics, Devin Hoff on bass, and Tim Daisy on drums. Three 20-minute pieces dedicated, in Vandermark's fashion, to women of the arts. The sax bounces over marvelous rhythms, my only complaint that some of the electronics drops out at moderately low volume, making me wonder what's happening. B+(***)

Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks: Wig Out at Jagbags (2014, Matador): Back in the 1990s I thought he couldn't sing so I counted as miracles the albums he got away with it -- Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain probably remains as the greatest rock album of the decade. His vocal lines here are every bit as convoluted but far less miraculous. B+(**)

Brad Mehldau Trio: Where Do You Start (2008-11 [2012], Nonesuch): Along with Ode (which I still haven't heard), one of two 2012 albums by the trio, this all (but one) widely scattered covers (Elvis Costello, Nick Drake, two Brazilian pieces, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, the title cut by Johnny Mandel and the Bergmans). Runs long but as crisp and fresh as their early albums. A-

Brad Mehldau/Mark Guiliana: Mehliana: Taming the Dragon (2013 [2014], Nonesuch): Pianist and drummer, respectively, the former mostly playing synths here, the latter doubling on electronics. Giuliana comes from the group Heernt but has a fair number of jazz credits since 2003. Some spoken word, credited to Mehldau, works across the grain of the electronics. B+(**)

Pat Metheny Unity Group: Kin (2013 [2014], Nonesuch): Rhapsody only has 5 of 9 cuts (including the one that's 0:38, but none of four tracks that top 10:00), so I can't really claim to have listened to this, but what I have heard is so underwhelming I can't imagine the missing scraps make much difference. Expands on 2012's Unity Band by adding jack-of-all-trades Giulio Carmassi. Still, the big question is why hire Chris Potter then not let him play? B-

Roscoe Mitchell: Conversations I (2013 [2014], Wide Hive): The venerable AACM saxophonist is joined by Craig Taborn (keybs) and Kikanju Baku (percussion). First cut is called "Knock and Roll" and is about all the shrillness I can stand. After that they slow it down, open it up, and play off the oblique angles. Remarkable in some ways, but it can get awful rough on your ears. B

Modern Baseball: You're Gonna Miss It All (2014, Run for Cover): Philadelphia group, lo-fi with nasal vocals cutting through some rather fetching melodies. Rather short at 29:30. B+(***)

Jennifer Nettles: That Girl (2014, Mercury Nashville): Country singer, cut an album early then co-founded the group Sugarland, which I've avoided, following the rule that bands with logos are always awful. Her voice has little appeal and she adds little to her numerous co-credits, but manages to channel her inner Janis Joplin on Bob Seger's "Like a Rock." B

The New Mendicants: Into the Lime (2014, Ashmont): Veteran songwriters from Teenage Fanclub and the Pernice Brothers plus a drummer from the Sadies giving them roots, but not very deep ones, in three Anglophone countries. Their soft melodiousness gets compared to the Hollies, not that that's what the Hollies are remembered for, but then who recalls the Insect Trust? A-

Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire for No Witness (2014, Jagjaguwar): Singer-songwriter, grew up in St. Louis and works out of Chicago, second (or third) album, has a low-budget folkiness to it. B+(*)

The Jim Olsen Ensemble: We See Stars (2013 [2014], OA2): Smallish big band -- two trumpets, one trombone, three reeds, extra percussion, leader plays flute -- the best known musician here Dick Oatts although there are a couple more I'm familiar with. Nice balance, no excess but doesn't seem to be missing anything. B+(**) [cd]

Ark Ovrutski: 44:33 (2013 [2014], Zoho): Bassist, b. 1963 in Kiev, based in NY since 2005; second album, following Sounds of Brasil, postbop quintet with Michael Dease prominent on trombone, Michael Thomas on sax, and David Berkman on piano. B+(*) [cd]

Ulysses Owens Jr.: Onward & Upward (2013 [2014], D Clef): Drummer, has a previous album on Criss Cross, pulls out all the stops here. For me the album goes off the rails with Charles Tuner's vocal on the second track, but a superb clarinet solo on down the line sent me to the credits to find Anat Cohen. B+(*)

Chris Parker: Full Circle (2013 [2014], OA2): Pianist, based in New York, presumably not the same as drummer Chris Parker -- from Chicago, former leader of Toph-E and the Pussycats, released The Chris Parker Trio last year -- nor British bass guitarist Chris Parker, although there's an idea for a group. Second album (as best I can tell), quintet filled out very nicely with John Nastos on alto and soprano sax and Rob Thomas on violin. B+(**) [cd]

Adrian Raso and Fanfare Ciocarlia: Devil's Tale (2013 [2014], Asphalt Tango): Canadian guitarist, deep enough into Django Reinhardt he arranged this meeting with Romania's leading gypsy brass band, who fill out his contours impressively, lots of flash and muscle. B+(***) [dl]

Mike Reed's People, Places & Things: Second Cities Volume 1 (2013, 482 Music): Chicago drummer, has used this group young avant-gardists to explore the rich legacy of the music in Chicago since the 1950s, but here reveals an Amsterdam connection, joining his core quartet with the cream of the Dutch avant-garde, including Ab Baars, Eric Boeren, Guus Janssen, and US expat Michael Moore -- almost like Sun Ra sitting in with the ICP. A-

Revolutionary Snake Ensemble: Live Snakes (2011-13 [2014], Accurate): Saxophonist Ken Field's Boston group, personnel shifting among six live dates excerpted here but they're all of a piece, tapping into New Orleans tradition, most impressively on an old Albert Brumley song which segues into an avant-Dixieland "Que Sera Sera." A- [cd] [Later: A]

Schoolboy Q: Oxymoron (2014, Interscope): Matthew Hanley, rapper from Los Angeles, started out in Black Hippy collective with Kendrick Lamar, third album here, focusing on pills and blunts and soul food, nothing too heavy. B+(**)

Serengeti: C.A.B. (2013, Anticon, EP): Reportedly cut in Berkeley (2009-11) with Jel and Odd Nosdam, in sessions that also produced C.A.R. and The Kenny Davis EP (both out in 2012) -- seven tracks, 21:25, "not leftovers" they promise as if savoring the best for last, and indeed the ramshackle rhymes and beats offer a satisfying slice of life (pretend life, maybe). A- [bc]

Daniel Smith: Smokin' Hot Bassoon Blues (2013 [2014], Summit): Started out in classical, cutting numerous records with damn near every note in the canon written for bassoon, then moved on to Bebop Bassoon. Aside from two Ray Charles tuns (with vocals by Frank Senior), these are mostly blues-based bop-era standards -- "Night Train," "Better Get Hit in Your Soul," "Back at the Chicken Shack," "Señor Blues," "C Jam Blues," "Moanin'," etc. Still, lead bassoon is at best a novelty. B+(*) [cd]

The Souljazz Orchestra: Inner Fire (2014, Strut): Canadian group, half dozen albums since 2005, fond of Latin and funk rhythms and often get them mixed up for a synthesis that isn't quite comfortable in any genre. B+(*)

St. Vincent: St. Vincent (2014, Loma Vista/Republic): Annie Clark's fourth album -- or fifth counting the duo album I file under David Byrne -- starts off quirky enough to make me wonder if this might be her breakthrough, and perhaps it is. B+(***)

Step Brothers: Lord Steppington (2014, Rhymesayers): MC/producer Evidence teams up with producer/MC Alchemist. Striking example: a repeated bass figure, a vocal fragment "I walked into the casino to see the rich man play," and Roc Marciano's fragmented rap. B+(**)

Ben Stolorow/Ian Carey: Duocracy (2013 [2014], Kabosha): Piano and trumpet duets, a nice contrast on a mix of jazz and pop standards, not least "Cherokee." B+(**) [cd]

Tinariwen: Emmaar (2013 [2014], Anti-): From the desert end of Mali, with several impressive discs since 2002, although this was cut in the relative safety of the US with a few Yankee ringers, and they all play it safe. B+(***)

Tri-Fi: Staring Into the Sun (2013 [2014], self-released): Trio, with Matthew Fries on piano, Phil Palombi on bass, and Keith Hall on drums. Fries has several previous records, including Tri-Fi with this group in 2005. B [cd]

Ken Vandermark/Agustí Fernández: Interacting Fields (2013, Discordian): Sax (or clarinet)-piano duo. One factoid I wonder about is how many times Vandermark has played in duos with a pianist? Damn few: maybe one with Jim Baker, maybe a bit with Misha Mengelberg, but mostly trios with Håvard Wiik, and hardly anyone else. Fernández, based in Barcelona, on the other hand has made a career out of duos: 19 (of 38 at Discogs) albums are duos. The pair are remarkably well matched on the hottest cut ("Clashing Particles"). B+(***) [bc]

Javier Vercher/Ferenc Nemeth: Imaginary Realm (2013, Dreamers Collective): Spanish tenor saxophonist meets Hungarian drummer, both with records I've enjoyed, but actually a trio -- back cover adds "with the collaboration of David Kikoski," the pianist filling out the gaps duos inevitably leave. Choice cut: "Giant Henge." B+(**)

Old Music: Reissues, Compilations, Vault Discoveries

Johnny Cash: Songs of Our Soil (1958-59 [2002], Columbia/Legacy): Not much of the rhythmic crackle of Cash's Sun sides -- at least until you get to the singles-oriented "bonus tracks" -- but his grim sketches ("Five Feet High and Rising," "The Man on the Hill," "Hank and Joe and Me") leave their mark, and no one has ever got more out of "The Great Speckled Bird." A-

Johnny Cash: Ride This Train (1959-60 [2002], Columbia/Legacy): Original just has eight songs but runs 32:20, each song introduced by Cash talking about Indians and coal mining and lumberjacking -- not great "performance art" (as similar efforts would come to be called) but plenty of context and feeling; reissue adds four more songs, no talk. B+(**)

Johnny Cash: The Sound of Johnny Cash (1962-62 [1962], Columbia): Sort of the common denominator for any Johnny Cash album, that sound: the rich, deep voice, the chunky rhythm, the chintzy backup singers. Short on originals, with "In the Jailhouse Now" and "Delia's Gone" the most memorable covers, outlaw fare both. B+(*)

Johnny Cash: Blood, Sweat and Tears (1962 [1963], Columbia): Hard labor, scant rewards, explored in a set of songs that don't quite add up to the concept, the initial confusion evident in stretching "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer" out to 9:03, tacking on "Nine Pound Hammer" then letting his mind wander from pounding the rails to riding then ("Waiting for a Train," "Casey Jones"). B+(***)

Johnny Cash: Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash (1958-63 [1963], Columbia): Singles and B-sides but nothing from Sun (so forget that "best of"), only one also on a Cash LP, so it's easy to think of this roll up, hot on the heels of his biggest hit to date, as just the next logical album in the Columbia series -- or would be if it flowed better, peaked higher, and gave up on the idiocy that the Alamo had anything to do with freedom. B+(**)

Johnny Cash: Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian (1964, Columbia): Half-written by folksinger Peter La Farge, who like Cash imagined an Indian ancestry and aligned himself with America's ancestors and victims, a sensibility and history that we all should all recognize. Not sure there's no condesenscion here, but the songs are tough-skinned, a favorite ploy to move closer to the drums. Only song you're likely to have heard here is "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," which much later Clint Eastwood turned into a brilliant movie. A-

Johnny Cash: Orange Blossom Special (1964 [2002], Columbia/Legacy): Bob Dylan is a great songwriter but his three songs here fit oddly, as does "Danny Boy" with its torturous introduction, and for that matter "Amen"; on the other hand, Cash's "Long Black Veil" rivals Frizzell's, "The Wall" and "When It's Springtime in Alaska" are memorable stories, and the title cut chugs right along. B+(*)

Johnny Cash: Sings the Ballads of the True West (1959-65 [2002], Columbia/Legacy): Originally a double LP with 20 songs, a real work of scholarship if not archaeology, starting with Hiawatha and going back to when Kentucky was darkest wilderness, nothing singles-worthy (which didn't stop them from releasing "Mr. Garfield"), a somber and often brutal compendium, my main complaint the condescending "Johnny Reb" and an excessive romance with six-shooters -- not that "The Ballad of Boot Hill" is anything but a withering critique of the gun cult. B+(***)

Johnny Cash: Everybody Loves a Nut (1965-66 [1966], Columbia): The obvious move was to lighten up, but neither Jack Clement nor Shel Silverstein can consistently crack a joke -- Clement's "The One on the Right Is on the Left" is by far the best of the bunch -- and while Cash goes along with the mischief he is conflicted, even about playing "Red River Valley" on the harmonica. B-

Johnny Cash: Happiness Is You (1962-65 [1966], Columbia): A throwback to Cash at his most folkloric, almost talking through a batch of songs where only his remake of "Guess Things Happen That Way" and a twangy "Wabash Cannonball" feel natural. B

Johnny Cash & June Carter: Carryin' On With Johnny Cash & June Carter (1967 [2002], Columbia/Legacy): Skipping Greatest Hits Vol. 1 (redundant, although "Jackson" appeared there first). Cash and Carter didn't actually get hitched until after this record, and she only shared the headline on two later Cash albums. This one is very inconsistent, with two Ray Charles songs amplifying the messiness. Disappointing, as she was one of the few members of the human race with a voice that could stand next to his. B+(**)

Johnny Cash: From Sea to Shining Sea (1967 [1968], Columbia): The title tracks, intro and coda, swell with the grandeur of America, but in between it's the ordinary details that matter -- a miner, a cotton picker, a shrimp boat hand, a prisoner, a checker game at a filling station, the unknown crafter of an arrowhead. B+(**)

Johnny Cash: The Johnny Cash Show (1970, Columbia): Recorded live at the Grande Ole Opry, the six cuts include two medleys and Kris Kristofferson's one great song, "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," backed by a phalanx of unnecessary strings. B+(*)

Johnny Cash: I Walk the Line [Soundtrack] (1970, Columbia): A John Frankenheimer film named for Cash's 1956 hit, reprised here along with seven more Cash originals (new ones, I think, most notably "Flesh and Blood"), a couple orchestral versions (yuck), and a choral medley with "Amazing Grace." Stars Gregory Peck and Tuesday Weld are pictured on the cover, and the whole thing runs 26:29. Not to be confused with the 1964 album of the same name (with its re-recorded Sun material), or the 2005 Walk the Line Cash-Carter biopic soundtrack, performed by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. B

Johnny Cash: Little Fauss and Big Halsy [Soundtrack] (1971, Columbia): A second quick soundtrack, but Cash gets bigger print than the long title or stars Robert Redford and Michael J. Pollard and comparable photo space, although their motorcycle has more shine than his guitar. With Carl Perkins, who wrote four songs, sings one of them, and picks on the instrumentals. B+(*)

Johnny Cash: Man in Black (1971, Columbia): One of the era's most effective antiwar songs ("Singin' in Vietnam Talkin' Blues"), although the hit was the solidarity anthem with the downtrodden, but for filler he begins and ends with Jesus, and too bad guest preacher Billy Graham doesn't have anything worthwhile to offer. B+(***)

Johnny Cash: A Thing Called Love (1972, Columbia): Three singles, "Kate" and "A Thing Called Love" fine but unexceptional, "Papa Was a Good Man" means well but requires too much special pleading, as does "Tear Stained Letter." B

Johnny Cash: Johnny Cash På Österåker (1972 [2007], Columbia/Legacy): Back in jail, performing for the inmates of Sweden's Österåker Prison. The reissue significantly expands and reshuffles the original 12-cut 1973 album to 24 tracks, including a rewrite of "San Quentin" as "Österåker" and some between-song patter in Swedish. B+(**)

Johnny Cash: Any Old Wind That Blows (1973, Columbia): The hit here is "Oney" -- an impulse to violence I've never approved of, not that I'm unfamiliar, let alone sympathetic, with overlings who abuse their power, nor that I can't appreciate the impulse, or Cash's closing cackle. Meanwhile, Cash loosens up on nearly everything, even the Jesus closer, and is downright exuberant on "If I Had a Hammer." A-

Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash: Johnny Cash and His Woman (1973, Columbia): The second of only three widely-spaced duet albums, not much especially considering how much her voice and comic timing could have brought to the deal, and even here she's at best a backing singer on more than half the cuts, so you got to figure it's something with him -- and something oddly personal, given that he met her on stage. B

Johnny Cash: Ragged Old Flag (1974, Columbia): Cash wraps himself up in the flag, and he's entitled, his love of country so deep it survives the embarrassments and follies that have torn it apart. Then he sets to worrying. B

Johnny Cash: Johnny Cash Sings Precious Memories (1975, Columbia): Another gospel album, Cash's fifth (if you're counting), and probably his worst -- obvious fare like "Rock of Ages," "The Old Rugged Cross," "Amazing Grace," and the tile song rendered by a lame orchestra and lots of extra voices. Only tolerable when they pick up the pace (e.g., "In the Sweet By and By"). C-

Johnny Cash: John R. Cash (1975, Columbia): Only one original ("Lonesome to the Bone"), with the covers casting far for inspiration, finding it in such clever turns as Billy Joe Shaver's "Jesus Was Our Savior and Cotton Was Our King" and Randy Newman's "My Old Kentucky Home," but nothing quite fits. B

Johnny Cash: Look at Them Beans (1975, Columbia): Three Cash originals, with "I Hardly Ever Sing Beer Drinking Songs" the most revealing, a point he proves by trying to sing one from Don Williams. The title track comes from Joe Tex, and it's funny that they kept the horns. B+(*)

Johnny Cash: Strawberry Cake (1975 [1976], Columbia): Live, from the London Palladium, starts with three songs from the Sun era, a story about watching chain gang workers, then "I Got Stripes." Then comes June Carter Cash's Carter Family tribute, interrupted by a bomb threat, and Cash's new title song, a Lonnie Donegan tribute, a song about the "Navajo," and a couple more. B+(**)

Johnny Cash: One Piece at a Time (1976, Columbia): The title track is such a perfect working stiff yarn that it comes as a surprise that Cash didn't write it. But seven tracks -- more than any of album of the period -- have Cash's name on them (or eight with the one by Rosanne Cash). B+(***)

Johnny Cash: The Last Gunfighter Ballad (1976 [1977], Columbia): The title track is by Guy Clark, but Cash's originals are better than par for the period (especially "City Jail"), June helps lift "Far Side Banks of Jordan," and this ends with a touching Gene Autry tribute, "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine." B+(**)

Johnny Cash: The Rambler (1976-77 [1977], Columbia): A concept album, eight original songs with narration between: Cash's character gets dumped by his "lady" and hits the road, picking up a hitchhiker in Indiana with an ex called Calilou, so they drive west, get cold feet in California, and turn around toward New Orleans. Nothing wrong with the songs, nor interesting in the repartee. B

Johnny Cash: I Would Like to See You Again (1976-77 [1978], Columbia): Waylon Jennings helps out on two songs -- "I Wish I Was Crazy Again" is more his line, but "There Ain't No Good Chain Gang" is a lesson Cash learned long ago. Cash's four originals are solid enough -- "Who's Gene Autry?" rings truest -- and his pick of the covers fills the album out nicely, with "I'm Alright Now" an upbeat gospel closer. B+(**)

Johnny Cash: Gone Girl (1978, Columbia): Cash's own "I Will Rock and Roll With You" is pretty ambivalent, even fretting about the weirdos in the wings, but he nails one by Jagger-Richards, rocks "It Comes and Goes," and corrals some catchy covers (including "The Gambler" and "Cajun Born"). The strings aren't fatal, but not a plus either. B+(**)

Johnny Cash: Silver (1979 [2002], Columbia/Legacy): Reissue adds two George Jones duets to the one on the album proper, both remakes as is "Cocaine Blues"; then there's the twisted "I'll Say It's True" -- no idea what to make of that. B+(*)

Johnny Cash: Rockabilly Blues (1979-80 [1980], Columbia): The title song refers back to "Texas 1955," and the album as a whole is a bit more upbeat with a bit more jangle than Cash's norm, but it's not what rockabilly sounded like back then, even when played by the Tennessee Two -- i.e., this sounds less like Cash than usual. Covers from Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, Steve Goodman/John Prine, Rodney Crowell, and Nick Lowe don't sound like them either. No wonder he's got the blues. B

Johnny Cash: The Baron (1980-81 [1981], Columbia): Countrypolitan legend Billy Sherrill enters as producer, pretty much killing off the Cash sound, and Cash didn't bother to write a line, but he sings fine, with "Reverend Mr. Black" and "Chattanooga City Limit Sign" the most satisfying songs, and the patriotic swell of "Greatest Love Affair" the yuckiest moment. B

Johnny Cash/Jerry Lee Lewis/Carl Perkins: The Survivors Live (1981 [1982], Columbia): Three-fourths of Sun's circa 1955 "million dollar quartet" -- Elvis Presley had died in 1977 -- reassemble for a live show in Germany, doing some of their old hits ("Get Rhythm," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," "Blue Suede Shoes") and old favorites ("Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad," "Peace in the Valley," "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "I'll Fly Away," "I Saw the Light"). Fast and sloppy, hard to complain, or see the point. B

Johnny Cash: The Adventures of Johnny Cash (1981-82 [1982], Columbia): Cash fell off the country singles list in the 1980s: only "The Baron" (1981) cracked the top-20 (at 10), and only two (of three) singles even charted here. Of course, Billy Joe Shaver's "Georgia on a Fast Train" sounds fine, as does John Prine's "Paradise" and Merle Haggard's "Good Old American Guest." B+(*)

Johnny Cash: Johnny 99 (1983, Columbia): Where Cash finally covers Springsteen, twice, and I never want to hear "Highway Patrolman" sung by anyone else. Second best song is "I'm Ragged but I'm Right," credited to George Jones but old even when Riley Puckett sung it (and the title of a superb out-of-print RCA comp of "Great Country String Bands of the 1930's." But I've been spared by birth the slightest temptation to join in on "God Bless Robert E. Lee." B+(*)

Johnny Cash: Rainbow (1984-85 [1985], Columbia): Legacy's compilations hardly ever extend beyond 1983's "Highway Patrolman" (even the one titled Columbia Records 1958-1986) making this one of Cash's most forgotten records. Chips Moman produced -- nothing crisp or sharp here, or indeed memorable, but nothing embarrassing either. B-

Johnny Cash & Waylon Jennings: Heroes (1984-85 [1986], Columbia): A spinoff, or maybe just outtakes, from the Highwayman project, two desperate artists in black give us more reasons to detest the concept, including the anthem "American by Birth" ("and Southern by the grace of God"). B-

Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson/Johnny Cash/Kris Kristofferson: Highwayman (1984 [1985], Columbia): The quartet's third album, 1995's The Road Goes On Forever, rechristened them as the Highwaymen, but Jimmy Webb's title song is singular, and the artists are listed left-to-right across the front cover as above. Amusing to listen to trademark voices trading lines, but that just makes them pass faster. B

Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson/Johnny Cash/Kris Kristofferson: Highwayman 2 (1989 [1990], Columbia): No names on the cover, just faces, so we'll keep the credit order. Cash's "Songs That Make a Difference" is the odd one out because none of the others do. B-

Budd Johnson & Phil Woods: The Ole Dude & the Fundance Kid (1984 [1985], Uptown): Johnson was one of the swing era's tenor sax greats -- he rarely led sessions but they were often terrific, and he often shows up in the side credits of first-rate albums -- and this seems to have been his final session. Alto saxophonist Woods was a bebopper who grew to respect his elders and he meshes nicely here, with Richard Wyands on piano. A- [dl]

Gene Ludwig-Pat Martino Trio: Young Guns (1968-69 [2014], High Note): Organ-guitar trio, with Randy Gelispie on drums. Martino's career ended with an aneurysm in 1979, then was resurrected, to much hoopla, in 1987, not that (in admittedly light sampling) I've found his work -- mostly soul jazz riffs with a touch of Montgomery -- all that impressive. Organist Ludwig has an even spottier discography with no melodrama explaining the gaps -- a couple mid-1960s albums, one in 1979, a steady stream of retro-soul jazz efforts since he turned 60 in 1997. This, however, is terrific, with the guitar racing so fast that Ludwig never gets to settle into his groove. Previously unreleased, I think. A- [cd]

Additional Consumer News:

Previously rated Johnny Cash albums (Columbia):

  • Johnny Cash: The Fabulous Johnny Cash (1958 [2002], Columbia/Legacy) A-
  • Johnny Cash: Hymns by Johnny Cash (1959 [2002], Columbia/Legacy) B+
  • Johnny Cash: Now, There Was a Song! (1960 [1994], Columbia/Legacy) B+(***)
  • Johnny Cash: Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968 [1999], Columbia/Legacy) B+
  • Johnny Cash: Johnny Cash at San Quentin [The Complete 1969 Concert] (1969 [2000], Columbia/Legacy) A-
  • Johnny Cash: America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song (1972 [2001], Columbia/Legacy) B+
  • Johnny Cash: The Johnny Cash Children's Album (1971-73 [2006], Columbia/Legacy) B

Also Columbia/Legacy's compilations (own records 1958-85; before that are cross-licensed from Sun; after from UME, either Mercury or American):

  • Johnny Cash: Life (1958-77 [2004], Columbia/Legacy) A-
  • Johnny Cash/June Carter: 16 Biggest Hits (1964-83 [2006], Columbia/Legacy) B
  • Johnny Cash: Columbia Records 1958-1986 (1958-83 [1987], Columbia) A-
  • Johnny Cash: The Essential Johnny Cash (1955-83 [1992], Columbia/Legacy, 3CD) A
  • Johnny Cash: The Legend (1955-2002 [2005], Columbia/Legacy, 4CD) A
  • June Carter Cash: Keep on the Sunny Side: Her Life in Music (1939-2003 [2005], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD) B+

Columbia/Legacy has also started releasing a "bootleg" series, mostly from Cash's personal tapes:

  • Johnny Cash: Bootleg Vol. I: Personal File (1973-83 [2011], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD) A-
  • Johnny Cash: Bootleg Vol. II: From Memphis to Hollywood (1955-69 [2011], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD) B+(**)
  • Johnny Cash: Bootleg Vol. III: Live Around the World (1956-79 [2011], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD)
  • Johnny Cash: Bootleg Vol. IV: The Soul of Truth (1975-83 [2012], Columbia/Legacy) A-


Records I looked for but didn't find on Rhapsody:

  • Suzy Bogguss: Lucky (2014, Loyal Dutchess)
  • Daniel Carter/William Parker/Federico Ughi: Navajo Sunrise (2013, Rudi)
  • Lake Street Dive: Bad Self Portraits (2014, Signature Sounds)


Everything streamed from Rhapsody, except as noted in brackets following the grade:

  • [cd] based on physical cd
  • [cdr] based on an advance or promo cd or cdr
  • [bc] available at bandcamp.com
  • [sc] available at soundcloud.com
  • [dl] something I was able to download from the web; may be freely available, may be a bootleg someone made available, or may be a publicist promo