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EW review: Johnny Cash's brilliant finale

Also: Melodic Arie, hot-blooded Dashboard

By Gilbert Cruz
Entertainment Weekly


Johnny Cash

(Entertainment Weekly) -- Has there been a recent musical project more death-obsessed than Johnny Cash's American Recordings cycle?

Begun in 1994 under producer Rick Rubin, the four discs that brought Cash back to artistic life were -- with the exception of 1996's often rollicking "Unchained" -- one long, slow, sometimes sullen, always gorgeous march to the grave. You could hear age creep ever more into his voice on each record.

The posthumous "American V: A Hundred Highways," an equally melancholy mix of covers, traditionals, and original compositions, looks at death and gives it a weary shrug and nod. Cash began working on it immediately after finishing 2002's "American IV: The Man Comes Around" (which starred Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt") and continued recording after the death of his longtime love, June Carter Cash, right up to his own passing on September 12, 2003. It must have been a balm on his broken heart to keep working and singing, trying to convince himself that there were still things left to live for.

"I pray that God will give me courage/To carry on till we meet again/It's hard to know she's gone forever," he croons on a cover of Hank Williams' dead-wife lament "On the Evening Train." It's a poignant song, but not nearly as much as Cash's version of Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind," in which he almost sounds more vulnerable and fragile than he did on "Hurt," practically running out of breath at the close of every lyric.

Was he thinking of his own end? His health was fading, so it's hard to imagine that he wasn't. The man's spirituality -- so overlooked in last year's "Walk the Line" -- is everywhere. There's album opener "Help Me," a plaintive prayer, followed by "God's Gonna Cut You Down," an old spiritual about the Lord's wrath, which manages to pull off a "We Will Rock You"-ish stomp/clap refrain that is simultaneously holy and badass.

One of the two songs written by Cash, "I Came to Believe," is about religious belief, while the other, "Like the 309" (the very last song he wrote), is likely about his own death, though it is definitely about a train. It's one of the few tracks that moves with Cash's old locomotive-like thrum.

That's not to suggest that "American V" is a total downer. Better put, it's contentedly bleak. If this is, as Rubin has said, "Johnny's final statement" (despite the rumors of an "American VI" -- will this be the Tupac-ification of Cash?), then it is a fitting one, completely representative of the faithful old man he had become, having long ago shed his outlaw image no matter how often others tried to resaddle him with it.

EW Grade: A-

'Testimony Vol. 1: Life & Relationship,' India.Arie

Reviewed by Tom Sinclair

India.Arie begins her first CD since 2002's Grammy-winning "Voyage to India" with the quintessential New Age mantra "God grant me the serenity ..."

If that triggers your gag reflex, steer clear. But if you're not turned off by earnest expressions of self-righteousness set to comforting folk-tinged R&B, then "Testimony" just may be your cup of decaffeinated jasmine tea.

How pious is Arie? "Wings of Forgiveness" finds her name-dropping Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and Christ as she bids a lover adieu, while the image of lynching she invokes on "India Song" is used to deliver a hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner message.

What keeps such sanctimony from becoming overbearing is her gift for warmly evocative Stevie Wonder/Minnie Riperton/Tracy Chapman melodies. She's occasionally gently funky, as on "I Choose" (with Bonnie Raitt). Mostly, though, she purveys sentiments like "I wanna live with an open heart."

Corny? Maybe. But "Testimony" should resonate with the spiritual-not-religious crowd. For everyone else, well, there's always Lil' Kim.

EW Grade: B

'Dusk and Summer,' Dashboard Confessional

Reviewed by Chris Willman

When Dashboard Confessional toured with U2 last year, it was great exposure, and also a possible act of industrial espionage. The effects of such surveillance are abundant on their fourth studio CD, "Dusk and Summer," where the band sheds the last remnants of their early acousticism for big, anthemic arena rock.

Unlike Bono, Dashboard auteur Chris Carrabba channels his epic urgency into girl-craziness instead of God or global inequity, but the result is almost indistinguishable, set against decidedly Edge-ier riffing. They've never sounded so unoriginal.

Or, frankly, better. Carrabba could be insufferable back when the stripped-down settings put too much focus on his "do me, I'm sensitive" romanticism. He's still the king of carpe diem as come-on: Several songs invoke summer's end, as if everyone was at camp, facing some autumnal deadline for getting it on. ("Tonight may be the last chance we've been given," he nags some poor girl.)

But now the band is powerful enough to match Carrabba's grandiosity and lust. "Dusk's" hot-blooded, hokey songs might get the better of you this summer, even if you'll hate yourself in the fall.

EW Grade: B

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