Warren Zevon’s farewell record is funny, touching and graceful
Embracing death is among the most noble, even life-affirming acts humans are capable of. It gives dignity to life to face its end not with fear but with acceptance. Which helps to explain the artistic depth of three musicians who died in recent months: Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash and Warren Zevon. In life, even relatively early on in their lives, they sang about death with uncommon clarity, fearlessness, and even humor. It is a good model to follow: Never are we so alive as when death reminds us of its eternal looming presence.June Carter Cash was heiress to the legacy of the Carter Family, whose indelible song is “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” practically a celebration of death. June’s husband Johnny Cash, the Man in Black, seemed afraid of nothing, most especially his end. His greatest album was recorded in a prison, a place as close to death as there is. Cash’s career closed in a blaze of glory with the Rick Rubin-produced “American” series, four albums that left the singer stripped bare. When he covers Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” on 2000’s “American III: Solitary Man,” in a creaky voice, is there any doubt what is on Cash’s mind? Zevon toyed with death. His song characters included a little old lady mangled by werewolves, a boxer meeting his demise in the ring, a soldier who won’t give up the battle despite his headlessness, and a band whose membership was wiped out in a place crash. When Zevon made it known that his death was coming, our admiration seemed to step up a few notches: Here was a guy who had always mocked death, and now he was handling his fate with dignity.Following are reviews of recent releases left behind by Johnny, June and Warren.Warren Zevon, “The Wind”produced by Zevon, Jorge Caldern & Noah Scot Snyder (Artemis)Zevon wasn’t about to get sentimental now, even though “The Wind” was recorded with the knowledge that it would be his farewell album. Instead, Zevon seems to be practically inspired by the thought. “The Wind” is funny, touching and one of Zevon’s finest moments, given poignancy by his passing. It is reminiscent of George Harrison’s masterful final album, “Brainwashed”: It addresses the coming death with grace.”The Wind” opens with a bit of classic, sardonic Zevon: “Some days I feel like my shadow’s casting me,” he sings to open the memorable “Dirty Life and Times.” Zevon’s tone is optimistic, but the song leaves the question of eternity up in the air: “Sometimes I wonder what tomorrow’s gonna bring/When I think about my dirty life and times.” The album ends, though, on a wholly hopeful note as a weakened Zevon, accompanied only by the sparest instrumentation, croons “Keep Me in Your Heart”; “Hold me in your thoughts, take me to your dreams.”Death pervades “The Wind” in all kinds of ways. There is the chilling graveyard tale “Prison Grove,” with a group of friends – Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne and Zevon’s son Jordan – acting as a gospel-like, moaning chorus. A take on Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” with Zevon’s call to “Open up, open up,” welcomes death as a release from a tough world.Zevon even takes his mind off death for such tunes as the slight but pretty “She’s Too Good For Me,” the unusually earnest “El Amor de Mi Vida,” and the rocker “Disorder in the House,” with appropriately raunchy lead guitar from Springsteen. June Carter Cash, “Wildwood Flower”produced by John Carter Cash (Dualtone)Even if it weren’t June Carter Cash’s last album, recorded a month before June Carter Cash died unexpectedly in May, “Wildwood Flower” would seem like a documentary of the singer’s life. The rough-hewn sounds – simple but eloquent fiddles; Cash’s aged, authoritative voice; the harmony vocals provided by Johnny Cash, Carlene Carter and other family members; a snippet of the Carter Sisters from a 1949 radio broadcast – make it seem as if the last 60 years hadn’t happened.Cash wades through the songs of the Carter Family, a collection that could be seen as a parallel Great American Songbook. In plain but affecting language, songs like “Anchored in Love” and the marvelous title track get at the heart of life, especially romance and religion. But Cash finds death as inspiring a subject as life. As she sings in the album’s opener, “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “If you meet with the darkness and strife/The sunny side we may always view.” So “Storms Are on the Ocean” finds the agony in lovers parting. Despite its pretty title, “Big Yellow Peaches” is about moving on after a lover’s death. And “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone” echoes the sentiment of Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart”: In the memories of those left behind, there is some semblance of eternal life.Johnny Cash, “Live Recordings from the Louisiana Hayride”and June Carter Cash, “Live Recordings From the Louisiana Hayride”(Scena)These separate recordings, taken from the “Louisiana Hayride” radio show, recorded at Shreveport’s Municipal Auditorium, shed light on the early personae of Johnny and June Carter Cash. Johnny’s CD comes from performances between 1955 and ’63, and includes two songs – “Hey Porter” and “Luther Played the Boogie” – that are the earliest recordings of Cash yet released. Among the 16 tracks are familiar favorites (“I Walk the Line,” “Big River,” “Folsom Prison Blues”) and rarities, including a reading of the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem “Ballad of the Harp Weaver” and the gospel number “When I’ve Learned.” The CD demonstrates how little Cash’s tough-as-nails persona and straight-from-the-heart vocal style changed over a half-century. He was a complete package from the start.June’s album is much more of a surprise. The “Louisiana Hayride” tracks, from between 1960 and ’64, reveal her as a comedian and extroverted entertainer more than a musician; she even does a music-comedy bit, twisting the words to Marty Robbins’ “Big Iron.” It’s four tracks before she even gets to an honest musical moment, and her high-pitched, quavering voice gives even the music the edge of novelty. Highlights are the two closing tracks which include husband Johnny – a cover of Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and “Ballad of a Teenage Queen.” For a deeper, more mature Carter Cash, try “Wildwood Flower.”
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