It turns out that on Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, this supergroup (Pete Buck, Scott McCaughey, Steve Wynn, Linda Pitmon) was just warming up. It's with these paeans to America's pastime that they knock their concept out of the park. Hooks and nostalgia abound, but there's pathos too. In the 5:46 it takes for "Buckner's Bolero" to unfold, the man responsible for baseball's most famous error is exonerated and celebrated "for just what he was: a pretty tough out for the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Cubs."
Grant Sony's barrel-scrapers this much: The 1955 Memphis radio broadcast that kicks off this latest set of Johnny Cash obscurities is a real find, proof that Cash sounded as majestic as the hills even as a young man and a touching example of the gracious humility that prospective stars were once expected to possess. As for the subsequent "Sun Rarities" and Disc 2 obscurities, they're engineered for maximum immediacy, with "Foolish Questions" showing where Bill Engvall got his shtick. But sometimes an outtake is just an outtake.
Under producer Don Was, the jazz vocalist Kurt Elling and his combo transform songs by King Crimson, the Beatles, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Stevie Wonder into acoustic, late-night meditations entirely worthy of the Bill Evans-Miles Davis ("Blue in Green") and Marc Johnson ("Samurai Cowboy") company they keep. The coup, though, is Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out." Slowing the tempo and upping the swing, Elling takes the burden off the lyrics, the too-inside nature of which he renders moot by singing them in a sandpaper baritone that's pure mood.
You want novelty? How about 80 minutes of songs originally made famous by the likes of John Lennon, U2, Metallica, Coldplay, Kiss, and Radiohead as sung in monastic Mediaeval monophony against a grandiose New Age backdrop? Sometimes the idea is redundant (the Alan Parsons Project doing Edgar Allan Poe was plenty Mediaeval sounding to begin with) when it's not plain silly. But somehow it suits Barclay James Harvest's "Hymn" ("We killed [Jesus], nailed him up high. / He rose again as if to ask us why") to a T.
Now, here's an interesting juxtaposition: From Memphis to Hollywood: Bootleg Vol. II, Columbia/Legacy's new two-disc set of radio performances and miscellany that Johnny Cash made between the ages of 23 and 37, and Cash House Records' The Family Secret, the latest recording by Johnny's son John Carter Cash, now 40, an ambitiously eclectic project that's nothing like anything his father could've likely imagined sprouting from the family tree.
Although one sometimes senses that John Carter is striving overmuch not to evoke comparisons with his dad (with Tom Petty maybe), The Family Secret is the richer album. Not vocally (John Carter's tenor is as ordinary as his father's basso was profundo), but conceptually: No matter how many years he'd have recorded with Rick Rubin, it's hard to imagine Johnny's ever having gotten around to framing a set of (mostly) original compositions with Loudon Wainwright III's "Swimming Song" and (wait for it, it's "hidden") a dirge-like version of Blue Öyster Cult's "Godzilla."