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Johnny Cash still rules; Arcade Fire is growing up

February 17, 2011
By Mark J. Miller

This week I review another Columbia Legacy release of material from the late, great Johnny Cash and indie band Arcade Fire.

"Bootleg Volume II: From Memphis to Hollywood" is expected to be released next week, and the two-CD set of obscure Cash material from the Columbia vaults will sell for about $15.

The collection is divided into two periods of the Man in Black's works, including the 1950s and '60s.

All culled from Cash's prolific output in those two decades, the collection includes many demos of early songs Cash later recorded in the studio. The demos, more intimate than the sweetened studio versions, are a delight, as it's Cash stripped to the bone.

All you hear are the warmth of the man's amazing vocals and phrasing and skin and bone picking a guitar.

Columbia wisely chose to stay away from the tunes Cash is most known for, as those already are widely available.

Instead we get an intimate portrait of the man as master storyteller, an American icon who was a folk singer above all else. All of Cash's material here tells a story in simple but profound terms. Fabulous.

The other odd item is one of the first radio broadcasts of Cash and his Tennessee Two at KWEM studios in 1955 in Memphis.

It's interesting to listen to Cash before he was an item, although his greatness already is evident.

It's funny to hear Cash hawking window awnings, as back in the day the artists had to do the commercials during the show.

His folksy and comfortable way of doing so is indicative of Cash's confidence and ability to connect with the common man in a very down-to-Earth way. The 15-minute show is in glorious, lo-fi mono, but it's a miracle it even survived at all.

Incidentally, the broadcast was released a few years ago on the uber-expensive Cash deluxe box set Columbia was hawking for $175.

I didn't bite, thinking it would one day be released on its own for a much more affordable price. I was right.

"Bootleg Volume II: From Memphis to Hollywood" is a must-have for any true Cash fan and a good introduction to what the man was all about for casual listeners. Highly recommended.

Canadian band Arcade Fire has been successful at mining the fields of adolescent angst for quite a few years now, and being a 48-year-old guy, I was always a little put off by that.

But the stunning reviews for the band's latest release "The Suburbs" convinced me maybe Arcade Fire was worth giving a listen to. I'm still 48, but I have to agree "The Suburbs" is a great album no matter how old you may be.

A concept album based on the rather drab and conformist suburbs of anywhere U.S.A. or Canada, the songs tell stories of confusion and angst among the "Leave it to Beaver" or "Brady Bunch" set. In other words, there's trouble in paradise.

While the lyrics left me a bit underwhelmed, the vocals are purposely buried in the mix, anyway.

It's all part of the band's well-crafted and wonderfully textured soundscapes using chiming guitars, lush, symphonic, otherworldly synth sounds and a ton of hooks. Arcade Fire is all about the music, and on that level the band succeeds magnificently.

Alluring and haunting, "The Suburbs" show this band has quite a future when band members decide to begin writing more "adult" lyrics.

(Miller is co-editor of Weekender.)

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