Johnny Cash Remixed
Label: Compadre Records
At the current rate, the number of posthumous Johnny Cash releases will soon surpass those that were released while the Man in Black was on this mortal coil. Perhaps this is to be expected; the music icon is now a veritable, uh, cash machine, and apparently there’s a thirsty market for this material, much of which is previously-available material recycled and repackaged in new formats. These various releases have run the gamut from essential (Personal File is a must for any Cash fan) to the completely pointless (Chapter and Verse is nothing more than a reissued version of Cash reading from the King James bible, and a law should be passed to stop the ongoing flood of Cash Greatest Hits albums).
Johnny Cash Remixed falls somewhere in between. A collection of various hip hop artists performing remixed versions of both Cash standards and a few of his more obscure songs, it’s not exactly a curiosity piece, but also isn’t required listening for either Cash or rap fans. Equal parts exciting and creative, frustrating and absurd, it’s an interesting but uneven take on how Cash’s patented spare and stripped down music can be manipulated and bent to fit a completely disparate musical genre.
The most successful remixes are those that attempt to place Cash’s songs in a modern context, either by adding lyrics that compliment the original words or by applying various beats, thwacks, and thumps to the melodies. Opening track “I Walk the Line” is reworked by QDT and Snoop Dogg into a mellow take on commitment and walking the straight and narrow. Excusing the usual business where Snoop announces his name at least once in every track he’s involved in (which I suspect is actually required by his contract), he adds new lyrics that fit well within the song’s context.
Alabama 3’s remix of “Leave That Junk Alone,” Kennedy’s version of “Sugartime” and The Heavy’s take on “Doin’ My Time” incorporate driving rhythms that place the original songs’ somewhat subdued instrumentation much higher in the mix. Alabama 3 also transforms the song into a modern cautionary tale about addiction and excess, with a set of original lyrics that show how some of Cash’s most well-worn themes are remarkably similar to those found throughout the hip hop genre. In this version, Cash plays the role of bartender, preacher and all-around voice of reason; it’s the album’s most creative and striking interpretation as it bridges the vast stylistic differences between country and hip hop to find common ground in a shared subject matter.
The rest of the album’s remixes are largely rote: vocals are distorted and clipped, certain lines or phrases are repeated ad nausea and throbbing beats you wouldn’t want to hear first thing in the morning in the grip of a hangover continue without mercy. Philip Steir’s take on “Get Rhythm” is pure twitchy starts and stops (ironic considering the song’s title). Yet perhaps the most egregious offender is Sonny J’s remix of “Country Boy.” Complete with some truly heinous and overwrought background vocals, it bears a disturbing similarity to Will Smith’s “Getting Jiggy With It.” If there’s a Hell, my guess is that this song is played on an endless loop.
These turds in the Cristal also unintentionally raise those pesky questions about how an icon’s musical legacy should be preserved and interpreted posthumously. Though Cash’s son John Carter is listed as one the three executive producers, it’s probably fair to ask how much more can be bled from the stone. Ignoring the baksheesh-based motives that cynical fans rightly question, the seemingly endless compilations and reissues that are expurgated out on an annual basis still have some merit: if anything, they provide Cash novices with a vast number of starter kits from which to choose.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to find much merit in this release. Though a few of the artists included succeed in the difficult balancing act of providing a hip hop perspective on Cash’s country songs while also maintaining his overarching themes and characteristics, too many of the tracks are indistinguishable from the generic approaches so often applied to remixes. Fans looking for a consistently good album that reinterprets the music of Johnny Cash will ultimately be disappointed.