Various Artists: ‘Til Things Are Brighter – A Tribute To Johnny Cash UK CD 
- Michelle Shocked: One Piece At A Time
- Stephen Mallinder: I Walk The Line
- Steve Mack: Rosanna’s Goin’ Wild
- Sally Timms: Cry, Cry, Cry
- David McComb: Country Boy
- Marc Riley: Wanted Man
- Peter Shelley: Straight ‘A’s In Love
- Cathal Coughlan: Ring Of Fire
- Tracey And Melissa Beehive: Five Feet High And Risin’
- Brendan Croker: Home Of The Blues
- Mary Mary: Boy Named Sue
- Mekons: Folsom Prison Blues
- Marc Almond: Man In Black
On an earlier post, we dredged up a review of Wall of Voodoo’s debut EP which came to my ears via their insanely powerful New Wave cover version of Johnny Cash’s iconic “Ring Of Fire” song. Today, we move from the opposite direction with Post-Punk bands covering Johnny cash on his own turf: country/rockabilly. This is one of my favorite tribute albums, ever. It’s a Johnny Cash tribute album that had the class to come out over a decade before he died! All of the performances are great and the whole project is tied together by a consistent backing band for every singer. This lends the project a real unity.
I bought this as soon as it was released largely for the appearances of the Beehive sisters and Stephen Mallinder of Cab Volt. Having Pete Shelley and Marc Almond were also benefits even if I did not collect those artists with the fervor that I had for CV and Voice of the Beehive. I was only familiar with about half of these songs and singers, but it works very well as one of my favorite tribute albums ever, and one that was released far ahead of the deluge that would happen in the 90s, when tribute albums stopped having any meaning. That it was a benefit for the Terrence Higgins Trust was only further in its favor and fully keeping in the inclusive and positive spirit of the album’s subject.
I actually had bought a 7″ of the original “One Piece At A Time” in 1976 as the novelty tune became Johnny Cash’s biggest hit during a long dry period in the 1970s following his greatest period of fame. I was less convinced by the emergence of Michelle Shocked in the late 80s. Anyone who would put a photo of themselves being brutalized by police at a riot certainly had some issues that held me at arms length, but she stuck pretty close to the blueprint of the original song here, so I could at least enjoy it for that. As it turned out, all of these songs sounded not too far from the original Cash sound with only the delivery of the vocalists lending each track its distinction.
No voice is more distinct to me than the deep, insinuating tones of Stephen Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire. This track was released a year before it all went pear-shaped for Cab Volt on the album “Groovy, Laidback, + Nasty,” so this stands as the last classic Mal track for a long time in my book! I would have never in a thousand years have imagined that I’d one day be hearing him sing a very reverent cover of the ultimate Johnny Cash classic, but it works for me like a fiend. What I would not give for an album of this sort of material from him.
Steve Mack was at this time the new American singer for That Petrol Emotion, whom I had not yet paid too much attention to yet. By the time that “Chemicrazy” was released, that would finally start to change, but his turn on the early Cash cut here is fine and was a good entry to his style.
One artist that I had quite a bit of solo material from was Pete Shelley, who kept the “r” in his first name for this divergence far afield from the worlds of synth pop or pop-punk. Shelley’s vocal delivery never quite made a perfect fit with the genres that he had established himself with. What made those records striking was how out of place he sounded in those settings. Not so here! His tenor is exceptionally well-suited to country music and I have to say that like Mallinder, I’d go for a whole album like this from him.
Other singers who were perhaps just waiting for country music to swallow them up were Tracey + Melissa Beehive from VOB. Their honey-soaked vocals were only a hair’s breadth from marking them as country music queens to start with, so they fell into this early Cash classic with almost no effort being expended at all. Their harmonies were just lovely and this sits as my definitive version of this retelling of the story of the Arkansas flood that made a lasting impression on Cash as a child.
The one poor fit that manifested on this album, was having Mary Mary of Gaye Bikers On Acid tackling the novelty tune “Boy Named Sue.” The song was already fairly campy and Mary Mary shreds the accelerator on the floorboard of restraint, lending the song a heavy-handed delivery that lay there inert. Besides, if they needed more Grebo on this album, they would have done well to have gotten Clint Mansell of PWEI instead, who brought more intriguing subtlety [relatively speaking] to their cover efforts.
If they really wanted to give the song some lateral, left-field delivery, wouldn’t it have been far more intriguing to have had Marc Almond cover this track instead? Having an effeminate man like him singing this would have re-approriated the song’s context dramatically, and I’m sure Marc could have arrived on a delivery that would have had me thinking about the song in a whole new way. Not unlike the lyrical thrust of the song itself which undergoes a similar re-think after Sue battles his dad. As it was, Almond closed out the album well with the song from which the album’s title was taken. No one would complain, but now that I have articulated the thought of Almond covering “Sue” instead, I can’t help but think of a “what if” scenario that lends this album a touch of the bittersweet.
There would be other Johnny Cash tribute albums in the years to come. Primarily at the time when the singer’s fading health coupled with his straightforward albums of material with Rick Rubin had raised his profile considerably at the end of his life. But those tribute albums are just the sort of tony or exploitative tribute albums that give the whole exercise a bad name. Better that efforts like this are out there to redeem the not completely unworthy notion of a tribute album.
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