American III: Solitary Man
American Recording

The back cover of this album shows a series of ominous heavy bells tolling in an untended grassy field: it's a daring choice for a musical icon whose life is now in one way measured by how he can hold back a chronic debilitating disease. Johnny Cash makes some daring song choices here, just as he did on two previous American albums - but some of the current crop shortchanges the singer and his audience.

The worst is over quickly. Who would have guessed that Cash's version of "Solitary Man" wouldn't hold a candle to Chris Isaak's cover? Likewise, The Man in Black gets little emotional mileage out of such seemingly-made-for-him material as U2's "One." Perhaps it's the faster-than-expected strumming or the choice not to use the bottom range of Cash's vocal depth. Fortunately, he shows the limitations of his current interpretations of rock-star tunes in the best way possible: he steers the song-set around. A brilliant pair of tracks - Will Oldham's "I See A Darkness" and Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat" - view mortality from narrators who aren't ready to face it. From this turning point, many songs are Cash's own compositions - and they set a proper place for spiritual concerns and earthy joys. On "Country Trash," hanging onto unassuming words like "mackinaw" speaks volumes more than Bono's anthemic lyrical pronouncements. Cash imbues a simple and sweet appreciation that may be the greatest gift possible from an artist who's clearly seeing the far horizon of life. Merle Haggard goads Cash in a fun stubborn-old-cuss song. Producer Rick Rubin uses no bass, favoring understated work from Laura Cash on violin, Sheryl Crow on accordion, and keyboardist Benmont Tench. -T.E. Lyons

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Box Factory Records

On the full-bodied tunes, like "Aries," "Mrs. Lynx," or the direct seg duo of "In Snow/In Sand," Lynx whips out a pleasing combo of geometry and dunt. On the other tracks, ya just wanna give 'em such a smeck and say "Hey, Oppenheimer! Why don'tcha put down the slide-rule and just friggin' rock awready?!?" If you like Oxes, Rumah Sakit, or latter-day Don Cab, you'll really like this. If you don't, you'll really hate it.

It bugged me. More and more as I listened to it. It wasn't just the lack of - dare I say? - soul or the chalky whiff of the academy that clouded every track. It was the lack of voice. More and more, the avant garde of the alternative scene has gone mute. From math rockers like Lynx to the epic-core of Godspeed You Black Emperor! to mutant jazzbos such as Larval and Bablicon, the vocalist is nix.

Why, in the face of the pine-n-whine of emo, the trailer trash nihilism of aggro, the tra-la-la of indie pop, the caveman braggadocio of hip-hop, have the smart kids dummied up?

Is it a collectivist rejection of the concept of the frontman, most often a vocalist? A mistrust of words, a reaction to growing up in a time of constant adspeak, psychobabble and a Prez shpritzing about "is"? Is it a feeling that everything's been said?

Or do they just have nothing to say? -Bill Widener

Furnace Room Lullaby

Instead of driving through the backroads of the deep South or West Texas, Neko Case's heartbreaks are played out in the Pacific Northwest. She sings of Puget Sound and Tacoma but she doesn't do it with any less attitude or soul than those honky tonk women that came before her.

She starts off the album with a strong declaration of voice and country soul with "Set Out Running." Of course, like many great country songs this one is about "winds out on the prairie and a tear from my eye." Lost love is a recurring theme on the album. The voice here seems to be barely hanging onto her sanity, hurt so bad, wracked by loneliness - she doesn't know where the hell she's going. She's just driving. "Guided By Wire" follows the first song perfectly, adding the kick that keeps the album rolling at a healthy clip.

She's mean as hell in "Mood to Burn Bridges," or she's delicate and comforting with her Patsy Cline-like "No Need to Cry." Throughout the album Case shows a refreshing diversity that's all too rare in alt. country today. She honky tonks, lulls, rocks, and balladeers. And she does it with an attitude (think Chrissie Hynde) lacking in even some of the best women rockers putting out music today.

Recently chosen as one of Esquire's "Women We Love," Case is making her way into mainstream media, but her music is nowhere close to mainstream. The imagery she evokes in her songs is original and indicative of talent, making something like a cross street or porch light seem important and necessary to life. -Steven Tweddell

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