There’s something about a man with an acoustic guitar who’s had his heart broken, lost his job and suffered tragedy, but can still sing about it that is a classic part of the musical tradition. Sometimes I wonder if the first song ever written was one of joy or sadness. There’s no way to ever know. Both ends of the emotional spectrum of songwriting have stayed with us right up to today, but somehow, the sad ones are always a little more believable and heartfelt than the happy ones.
“A New Day At Midnight”
The current king of acoustic sadness in my book, David Gray, released “A New Day At Midnight” in large part as reaction to the death of his father. Needless to say, the album is full of loss, grief, hope and recovery. Gray’s signature mix of acoustic guitar and piano, backed by techno-style bass and drum, is as present on this album as it was on “White Ladder,” giving even the saddest songs a seemingly happy beat. There are also plenty of love songs on the album that are just as sensitive as the sadder material. Gray’s ability to capture emotion in his voice is just as good as it has been in the past, but on this album his voice is more subtly intonated. A good album to watch the sunrise to, the major themes are putting the past behind you and preparing for a new day. As with many albums that start off as being concerned with death, in the end, the focus becomes life. Gray’s album is full of life and hope as he comes to realize that there is always a new day at midnight and he learns how to avoid the pitfalls of being stuck in the past.
Stand-out tracks: “Dead in the Water,” “Caroline,” “Freedom,” “Kangaroo,” “Real Love,” “Easy Way to Cry” and “The Other Side.”
“The Fine Art of Self Destruction”
Jesse Malin’s debut album comes courtesy of his association with Ryan Adams, who has taken Malin under his wing as somewhat of a prot?g?. Malin falls into the same vague category as Adams as an “Alt-Country” singer, whatever that means. While Malin does have his own voice and a fairly distinct sound, the influence of Adams is still pretty strong. Malin’s voice is nasal and whiny which works to his advantage in his late-night songs of depression, hope, sex, drugs and loneliness. The instrumentals on Malin’s album are full of bright, high-toned guitars and pounding piano. Its hummable bass lines are equally suited for watching the sun rise after a rough night out or blasting through your speakers as you fly down the Parkway for a day at the beach. Whereas Cash has an inherent sense of doom, Malin seems to inject even the most dejected lyrics with some sense of hope. In classic blues style, no matter how bad things get, he’ll always try to come out on top. A mix between early Tom Petty, Pete Yorn, Ryan Adams and his own unique style, Jesse Malin is someone to watch for the future and you can get in on the ground floor of his career with “The Fine Art of Self Destruction.”
Stand-out tracks: “Queen of the Underground,” “Wendy,” “Brooklyn,” “The Fine Art of Self Destruction,” “Solitaire,” “Almost Grown” and “Cigarettes and Violets.”
“American IV: The Man Comes Around”
The Man in Black is back and in classic Cash fashion. The deep, strong voice of the darker side of country is still singing about doom and pain. The title track comes from lines of scripture in the Book of Revelation. While Cash’s songwriting skills haven’t dulled over the ages of his career, the most interesting tracks on his newest CD are covers of songs from some unexpected sources: Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Glen Frey and Don Henley of the Eagles, Paul Simon and even the Beatles. Cash’s cover of NIN’s “Hurt” is strikingly poignant and slow with Cash’s down-home vocals, exuding sadness in every note. Reportedly Trent Reznor cried when he heard Cash’s version of the song. Some of the other covers seem more in Cash’s natural repertoire such as “Desperado,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and Hank Williams’ “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry.”
It’s the surprise covers that make this album something special. Cash’s reworking’s of “Personal Jesus,” “In My Life,” and even “Danny Boy” are emotionally wrought and powerful. There are also several Cash originals that are excellent on the CD such as “Give My Love to Rose,” and “Tear Stained Letter.” Add to these great selections numerous guest appearances by excellent artists in their own right such as Nick Cave, Fiona Apple, John Frusciante and Mike Campbell and this album becomes a vertible cross-section of traditional and modern American music.
Stand-out tracks: “The Man Comes Around,” “Hurt,” “Personal Jesus,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Streets of Laredo” and “We’ll Meet Again.”