Songs of the South
You have to wait until the 11th and final track of Rosanne Cash’s new album, The River and the Thread, for the latest evidence in support of my theory that there has never been a bad record featuring the electric sitar, that curious hybrid invented in the late ’60s by the Danelectro company of New Jersey.
Among my own favourite examples would be not just obvious things like the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby” (1968), Joe South’s “Games People Play” (1969), the Stylistics’ “You Are Everything” (1971), and Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” (1972), but the Hollies’ “The Baby” (also made in 1972, after Mikael Rickfors had replaced Allan Clarke, and the group’s greatest single, in my view), Paul Young’s stormingly soulful and brilliantly arranged “Tomb of Memories” (1983), and Pat Metheny’s piercingly beautiful “Last Train Home”, a track from the 1987 album Still Life (Talking) and a treat even for those who might not otherwise have much interest in Metheny’s work.
Anyway, back to Rosanne Cash. I bought The River and the Thread — released on the Blue Note label, an example of the broadminded approach of the company’s current president, Don Was — after reading an eloquent 10/10 review by Luke Torn in the January issue of Uncut. I don’t often find reviews to be very reliable guides these days, but this one was pretty close to the money. In more senses than one, actually, since I’m now going to have to embark on an expensive trawl back through the Rosanne Cash albums I’ve missed in recent years.
I found it to be an album that creeps up on you. The first time I played it, I got through half a dozen tracks thinking, “Well, this is pretty nice, but I don’t know about 10/10…” Then the songs started to grip, and by the last couple I was thinking it was excellent. The electric sitar topped it off, like a seal of approval. So I went straight back to the top, listened through again, and it turned out to be that good from start to finish.
Yes, it’s Americana, a somewhat over-familiar genre (particularly if you think that a genre that doesn’t include, say, bebop, doo-wop or hip-hop has no right to that name). But in Cash’s hands, and in those of her producer, guitarist and husband (and electric sitarist) John Leventhal, this voyage into the South — a set of songs, her first new material in seven years, inspired by Memphis, her birthplace, and Arkansas, where she grew up, and recent trips to the Delta, where she visited Dockery’s plantation, Faulkner’s house and Tallahatchie Bridge — largely sidesteps the cliched responses.
Lazy shuffles, slinky swamp-rock boogies, a great Derek Trucks slide guitar solo on “World of Strange Design” and a couple of lovely Leventhal arrangements — strings on “Night School”, trombones on “When the Master Calls the Roll” — typify the immaculate musicianship on show. The lyric make extensive use of geographical and cultural references — “combining the personal with the mythic,” as she puts it — with a constant presence of rivers. “A feather’s not a bird / The rain is not the sea / A stone is not a mountain / But a river runs through me” is how it starts, and “I was dreaming about the deepest blue / But what you seek is seeking you / You can cross the bridge and carve your name / But the river stays the same” is how it finishes.
Here’s the official eight-minute trailer for the album. It’s airbrushed, as these things usually are, but not indecently so. If The River and the Thread isn’t 10/10 for me, it’s certainly a solid eight, maybe eight and a half. I’m looking forward to seeing her London concert on April 30, at the Barbican. And if you happen to know of any bad records featuring an electric sitar, I’d be glad if you kept the information to yourself. This isn’t one of them.
* The photograph of Rosanne Cash is from the cover of The River and the Thread and was taken by Clay Patrick McBride.
Hi, Richard. I think there are times when I take or leave Roseanne but this new one has drawn me back in. You mention going back over her stuff. One I suggest is “10 Song Demo” from 1996. I suppose with the word “Demo” in the title, it could suggest something basic. Whilst the instrumentation is simple, I think Roseanne’s reading of the songs is great. There’s one in particular, the opener “The Price Of Temptation” that lyrically covers that topic very well with a great vocal. I came to that song through a magazine I’ve had a subscription for for many years “The Oxford American”. Their annual music edition is always beautifully compiled. So, back in 1996/97, there was this gem of a song tucked with the other tracks. Maybe the best way to have hit me. I might be wrong, but on that year’s compilation there was another gem – more funky – by Ollie Nightingale & The Hodges Bros “Sho Do”….wow. Oh, that they’d made a whole album. No electric sitar but I remember Traffic’s early dabbling
The Oxford American is terrific. There’s a great piece in the latest music issue on Junior Braithwaite and the roots of ska, by the brilliant John Jeremiah Sullivan.
Yes, read it and it’s brilliant. Funny what a mention like that brings to mind. From time to time, I used to get Exchange & Mart. Internet and EBay – pah! Around 1967, I spotted an ad to buy 30 ska/bluebeat 45s for £x (a bargain!). My idea was to sell them on and make a tidy profit. Flawed thinking….Ska hadn’t really taken a hold in Sunderland/Newcastle. No matter…opened up another track to follow. Oddly, in amongst the ska records was a Sue 45 – Don & Dewey with Soul Motion. Ska? What the hell is this…? Sugarcane Harris became a hero. Thank you Exchange & Mart.
Richard, an afterthought. I’m not on Twitter but I read with interest your mention of Alan Pardew’s little problem. So, as I’m a Sunderland supporter, I offer Mr P’s riposte in the style of Matt Lucas’ character (Vicky?) in Little Britain “Yes, butt…er, no butt, yes, butt…”
You’re so right about the electric sitar, which of course Reggie Young used so well on the Elvis and Dusty in Memphis sessions in 1968-69. An odd idea, but it works. Undoubtedly it inspired the film “Mississippi Masala” in the 1990s. This new Rosanne is the best since ‘Interiors’ – hope you saw her recent Oxford American essay: http://www.oxfordamerican.org/articles/2013/nov/25/issue-83-long-way-home/
Chris, I have to agree. A nice piece of writing for context and insight.
Thanks for the link, Chris.
Have you heard Lindi Ortega? The best country music ever for me and there’s a spirit of Springsteen there too.
No, but I will. Thanks.
No harm in starting with the latest album, “Tin Star” and the title track, which was the song that made me think, I like this. And make the link with Bruce. But the debut album, “Cigarettes and Truckstops” might just be my favourite.
Hi Richard – hopefully you can open this YouTube video…..the invention of the electric sitar! This got posted on Facebook, so a happy coincidence.
Thanks, Charlie. That is just fabulous.
Think I’ll have to put a electric sitar playlist together. It’s the way forward!