Reviews of my musical collection.

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Rosanne Cash "The River & The Thread"

The River & The Thread
I first heard Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Itch”, which fit my acceptance of country as a young man from a small town with one radio station that had a music standard similar to the dive bar in The Blues Brothers: “We play both kinds of music here, Country & Western.” I had already swerved recklessly into punk, so my country had to be rockin’. Both Cash & Dwight Yoakam fit that mold more than Randy Travis or George Strait. However, I lost touch with Cash until I heard her album, “The List”, which is her choice of songs from her dad’s 100 greatest songs list. However that album didn’t strike me the way “The River & the Thread” has. First of all, this isn’t just a Cash album, but a collaboration with her husband, John Leventhal, who has played nearly all the music and co-wrote the songs with Cash. His playing sounds so natural & spontaneous, that the production feels like a sit-in session in someone’s living room.  The first song with its refrain of “a feather is not a bird, rain is not the sea, a stone is not a mountain, but a river runs through me”, has a raw beginning with a guitar playing four minor notes in a stepping pattern, but it is Cash’s voice of longing & the lyrics of wandering along the Mississippi that sets the tone for the whole album, of a region she loves & constantly travels, at least in her memory. The stark image of five cans in the dust begins & ends the song “The Sunken Lands” of an unsatisfied woman who finally leaves with the rising tide of the river, that flows like the shuffle of the backbeat. Another woman “Etta’s Song” praises the man who stays with her despite the wandering, drinking & pills. The refrain of “What’s the temperature, darlin’?” a question that remains rhetorical at best. “Modern Blue” details the dangerous curves of relationships which keeps Rosanne’s “head down” and “my eyes on you.” as she recognizes the many shades of modern blue. Again, as she’s traveled to Barcelona & Paris, she finds herself back in Memphis. “Tell Heaven” with its longing & suffering guitar unanswered except for the refrain’s suggestion that doesn’t necessarily sound like it will be answered. “The Long Way Home” returns to the wanderlust that has found it’s roundabout way back to the South, to “Dark highways and the country roads” that “don’t scare you like they used to”. There is a sense of acceptance, something that resonates with someone who has a mixed love of his homeland at best, but loves the memories of the dust, silence, and space that my home in New York lacks. “World of Strange Design” again offers a bleak spiritual landscape, one where nothing fits into the old ways of thinking, but to find an answer, you must “start at the beginning”. The music has a ancient feel like a Charley Poole guitar line, but Cash’s voice sings lyrics that are anything but ancient in their imagery. This is a new place, where old ideas find purchase only in the music, not in place or spirit. On the other hand, “Night School” provides the most nostalgic notes of the album, as Cash sings of Mobile and a lost love, where the lessons are of love and loss. The string arrangement here with the cello providing an answer to Rosanne’s memories. “50,000 Watts” finds a place of hope, where prayers broadcast redemption across the walking pace of the guitars. If she ever channels her father, it must be on “When the Master Calls” with its story of random love, defiant devotion, early death and a lifetime of mourning as a young woman watches her new husband take his father’s rifle and follow where the “tides demand”. It has Johnny’s sense of fate that will happen when “the master calls the roll”. The album ends with “Money Road” a song that speaks of the costs of searching and striving, perhaps best reflected in the line “But what you seek is seeking you.” The bluesy guitar and Rosanne’s voice make the point that this isn’t just “Country and Western” but American music, a sound that feels like my memories of my youth, of many road trips driving down dark highways, watching rainstorms blow up across the wide plains of my youth. Americana is a term I’ve used to categorize music as varied as Tom Waits and the Neville Brothers. “The River & the Thread” fits in there nicely.