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Rosanne Cash was long one of the most open singer/songwriters in country music. Seven Year Ache, her 1981 breakthrough album, chronicled early problems in her relationship with artist/producer Rodney Crowell, which ended in divorce 10 years later. “Don’t bother callin’ to say you’re leavin’ alone,” she advised in the title track, one of three No. 1 singles on the record, “’cause there’s a fool on every corner when you’re tryin’ to get home.”
Of late, however, Cash has turned her back on Nashville, where, despite her star status, she was always kind of a black sheep. 1990’s Interiors—yep, named for the Woody Allen flick—was Cash’s debut as her own producer. That album’s somber, largely acoustic tone effectively removed her from consideration by country radio, and she didn’t seem to mind. A brilliant, painful declaration of independence, Interiors was followed in 1993 by the major misstep, The Wheel. Cash’s newfound freedom from Crowell and the strictures of the country airwaves gave her the room to write lots of droning songs about important subjects like the circle of life (a metaphor!) and being cleansed by fire (another one!).
The new 10 Song Demo, her Capitol debut, is just that, save for the piece count; there are 11 cuts here. Closer in sound to Interiors than to The Wheel’s chiming rock, these sketches are, sonically speaking, fairly rich. This is a less compelling album, though, than any ’80s Rosanne you’d care to name. She once complained about Rhythm and Romance’s slickness, but that 1985 disc’s surges of emotion and loud lead guitar made it seem as flintily sensitive as any indie-rock icon from its year. Tim, anyone?
Cash no doubt considers Demo a leap forward in realness, but what can it mean that a new song pretentiously titled “The Summer I Read Collette [sic]” echoes “Halfway House,” a no-bullshit rehabber’s diary from R&R? “Summer” is one of a small handful of Demo tracks that deal in concrete images rather than new-age creative-writing flourishes such as nakedness, God-as-woman, cleansing fire (again), “the gifts of the spirit,” truth (lookin’ you right in the eye, buster), hearts, souls, angels…make it stop! The Rosanne Cash I love might’ve laughingly complained (in a song she didn’t write) that her baby was like a train, always giving some tramp a ride—but she never came as close to whining as the 1996 model does on “Take My Body.”
“If I were a man, I’d be so sweet,” she promises herself on “If I Were a Man,” one of the few songs here lyrically uncluttered and melodically sharp enough to have fit on her classic Music City LPs. Cash’s early autobiographical hits carried on the Hank Sr./George-and-Tammy tradition of putting your miserable love life on the jukebox. In turn, listeners made them their own songs, just as Cash did when she covered Crowell, John Hiatt, Tom T. Hall, or dad Johnny. Now, unfortunately, Rosanne Cash is apparently in love with the idea of herself as a Major Voice. Like so many before her, she’s lost part of what made her so important when she really was one.
Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl” was part of another Significant neo-country/folk/rock hybrid, Emmylou Harris’ 1995 Wrecking Ball. What was then lost in the murk of Daniel Lanois’ production is reclaimed by the song’s author at the start of Revival, her major-label debut.
Like few contemporary compositions, “Orphan Girl” has the soul and feel of something that might have been written a century or two ago. Playing lightly with the sound-memory of old country hymns like “I Am a Pilgrim,” it is undeniable from first hearing. Producer T-Bone Burnett tugs at the edge of the tune with a smattering of electric noise (as if to teach Lanois a lesson about ambience). A couple of cuts later, when the bluegrass-rooted Welch sings in the voice of a bank robber with a souped-up getaway car, Burnett cranks the guitars full on.
“I used to talk tough/And I used to get loud…/Now if I stay quiet/They stay out of my way,” Welch’s thug states on “Pass You By.” Revival’s few decibel-heavy moments aside, the album showcases a woman who values quietude. Straight-shooting in both lyric and delivery, Welch arrives fully formed as an artist nearly equal to Lucinda Williams and on a par with Iris DeMent. The sad heroine of “Barroom Girls” could be the same nighthawk Williams limned in “The Night’s Too Long” a decade down the line. And though Welch occasionally praises Jesus (on three of Revival’s 10 cuts), the characters in most of her other numbers talk as if they wouldn’t recognize Him if he were following behind in a screaming squad car or downing a tequila shot by the rail.
It’s a little surprising to hear someone like Welch on a pop label in 1996. She’s the kind of artist a Nashville division often will sign for street cred, then dump after an album or two when Rebalike sales don’t ensue. Don’t figure “Orphan Girl” for the last of Welch’s tunes ready to be cherry-picked from her repertoire, though; “Paper Wings” could be a heartbreaker in Patty Loveless’ hands. But here’s a slogan suggestion for her label: Nobody sings Welch like Welch. When she’s got 15 years’ worth of work behind her, that should still be just as true.
Todd Snider’s 15 minutes, by the same token, ought to be over already. Snider is the Nashville singer/songwriter who hit on modern-rock radio with 1994’s “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues,” a hidden track on his Songs From the Daily Planet. A tale of trend jumpers who pull down millions of dollars by cultivating the right look and refusing to play or sing, it was amusing for three or four spins. After that, it sounded increasingly bitter and jealousy-ridden. The implication was that the holier-than-thou Snider was above all this.
Following a brief, arty introduction, Snider’s second album, Step Right Up, begins with “I Believe You,” a laundry list of buzzwords dripping with unearned sarcasm. “I believe in karma…soul…heaven… rock ’n’ roll,” Snider blurts. “I believe in the wrestlin’/I believe in sleep/I know I oughta quit now/But I believe I’m in too deep.” He quickly solidifies that last impression by sniping in the next line at “gangsta rap, gays and geeks and ghosts.”
Those are at least slightly more interesting targets than the landlords, mechanics, and phone solicitors he slaps on “Side Show Blues.” And as smug as Snider’s words are, they’re more lively than the music his unaptly named backing band, the Nervous Wrecks, supplies them with. From lame Beatles to lame Highway 61 Revisited to lame Creedence to lame generic blues, they’ve got all the ready-mades down—in a hole. There’s also lots of wailing lap steel for that extra touch of, you know, soul.
Actually, if Snider possesses an ounce of that fabled commodity, nowhere on Step Right Up does he display it. If he did, his gripes about young Hollywood might carry some heft. Instead, he fakes it by swiping some chords from “Dark as a Dungeon” for “Prison Walls” and by bitching, after a teenager is killed in a drive-by shooting, “Ain’t that freedom for you?” As talk-show host and former crank Jay Leno might ask: What’s his beef?CP