Ten Song Demo
Rosanne Cash, 1996
So this is just a real nice album, full of well-crafted tunes in the Nashville songwriting tradition, but in sparse stripped-down arrangements, mostly very downtempo. The lyrics are personal, emotional, often political, and unabashedly, beautifully feminist throughout.
The story of the album (though who knows if it's made up or true, or some combination?) is that Cash wrote a set of songs for her next album, and did the usual next step of recording a "demo" version of the songs with just the bare-bones instrumentation. And the A&R person at the record company, either moved by the artistry or moved by the bottom line, decided to release a cleaned-up version of the demos, rather than bring in a full band and big-name engineers to record a mainstream album. So what you get is Cash's expressive voice, accompanied most of the time by just acoustic guitar or piano (on a couple tracks another instrument is added, or maybe a contrapuntal guitar line overdubbed or something).
However it came about, thank goodness. The songs stand on their own, clean, bright, raw, vulnerable, and quirky - with no string sections or studio wizardry to get between singer and listener. Personally, I can't imagine enjoying an overproduced studio album half as much as I enjoy this.
The highlight for me is a song called "Child of Steel," which is one of those "advice for children" songs, but decidedly unsaccharine, outlining the relationship between parent and child by means of the shifting melodic profile as much as by the lyrics themselves. "If I Were a Man" is a breezy country-shuffling waltz that pokes fun at the absurdity of power relationships. Odd how the lyrics here remind me much more of a band like R.E.M. than any contemporary country act.
She fumbles on a couple songs: "Bells and Roses" sounds forced to me, like the words were calling for a different melody. And oops, the message in "The Summer I Read Colette" is excellently wrought, but I guess nobody recognized that the melody was (accidentally I'm sure) lifted from a song that couldn't be more inappropriate: Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf."
There are some other really nice songs, including "Western Wall," which is obviously a favorite of hers, as she's recorded it on at least two other albums that I know of. "List of Burdens" would have been the rocking radio-friendly lead single in the alternate universe of a major studio album, and "Take My Body" is such a heartbreaking performance as to be almost unlistenable (I often wonder what a Mary J. Blige cover of that song might sound like, though).
It's surely a melancholy album, but I find that it fits more of my moods than just that. It's a set of songs which remind me that one pop-music ideal hasn't died: that of the singer-songwriter who can make the personal universal and vice-versa.