Album Review: Rosanne Cash – The List

Stephen Deusner | October 8th, 2009

rosanne-cash-the-listDespite the endlessly repeated backstory, Rosanne Cash’s new album has little to do with her father and his influence on her tastes and career, at least not beyond suggesting the tracklist. Rather, The List plays like a tribute to the durability of country songwriting and its impact over the decades. Despite the genre’s lowly reputation throughout most of the twentieth century, she argues, songs such as Don Gibson’s “Sea of Heartbreak,” Harlan Howard’s “I’m Movin’ On” and Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings” can–and still do–speak to anyone’s pains and troubles, spanning geography and class.

Reinforcing this argument is Cash’s decision to move these songs from the country to the city, favoring a smoky, jazzy setting that nods to Owen Bradley and Norah Jones alike. On “Miss the Mississippi and You,” the curlicue guitar licks and buoyant brushed-snare pattern lend the song an easygoing river current that pushes her spry, precise vocals along steadily. “Long Black Veil” and Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” both get fluttery acoustic arrangements that emphasize their delicate melodies and forlorn sentiments.

Generally these austere arrangements work well, but her low-down, slowed-down “I’m Movin’ On” can’t even get the engine to turn over, much less peal out on the highway. Likewise, another song about travel–Haggard’s “Silver Wings”–lacks the forlorn finality of a good-bye, despite elegant backing vocals from Rufus Wainwright (Marianne Faithfull does better by Hag covering “Sing Me Back Home” on her own covers album, Easy Come Easy Go).

Like her father and like so many of the artists she covers on The List, Cash does not fit easily or very naturally into the parameters of country music, so this foray into new sounds and styles is neither a surprise or much of a stretch. With its subdued twang and exacting enunciation, her voice has too much polish to steal “She’s Got You” from Patsy Cline (and what artist, living or dead, could possibly do that?), but those same qualities illuminate The Carter Family’s “Motherless Children” and “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow” and lend them a palpable sense of loss.

As the album title implies, Cash is engaging with these songs as a collection rather than as individual compositions, so it’s hard not to hear The List as part of the recent deluge of covers albums, including Tanya Tucker’s overrated My Turn and Patty Loveless’ rated-just-right Mountain Soul project—or, God help us all, Rod Stewart’s hoary series of standards cash grabs. But perhaps the most interesting comparison, in concept if not necessarily in quality, is with Willie Nelson’s ground-breaking Stardust, which proved that country was big enough to welcome the urbane fare of Hoagy Carmichael and Irving Berlin. The List recalculates that Vin diagram and, despite its shortcomings, strongly suggests that these songs are rich enough and malleable enough to be considered part of the Great American Songbook.

Not that we needed persuading.

3.5 Stars

2 Pings

  1. [...] “I’m Movin’ On” and Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings” are worth hearing again.– Read more Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)iTunes SurveyOnyx Threaten to Attack Damon Dash [...]
  2. [...] You can read our reviews of Tanya Tucker’s My Turn and Wynonna’s Sing: Chapter 1 and also check out The 9513’s review of Rosanne Cash’s The List. [...]
  1. Leeann Ward
    October 8, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    I’d probably give this album a half a star more. I didn’t expect Cash to get twangy and these are the arrangements I expected for this album, based on her last couple projects at least. While I always like a good straightforward cover, I appreciate these off-the-beaten path covers too…much like Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds of Country and Western Music album not being country at all. One thing that I didn’t love about the production, though, was the serious reverb on the background vocals for “Silver Wings.”

  2. Leeann Ward
    October 8, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    By the way, I agree with you on the Tucker album and am indifferent to Rod Stewart’s covers. I think they’re okay, though he’s generally not my taste anyway.

  3. Rick
    October 8, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    I listened to all the song portions on Amazon and just wasn’t impressed enough to consider a purchase. Its just too bad I didn’t win a copy here because I’d still like to have a copy! (lol) I don’t usually care for songs that are re-worked by slowing the pace way down as I’m not big on funeral dirges.

    I like the concept of “The List” but wish Rosanne had turned the project over to Gail Davies to approach it like she did with “Caught In The Webb” featuring all those wonderful artists. Now THAT would be an album I could get excited about!

  4. Jay
    October 8, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    I plan to make an effort to hear “The List” although I usually find Rosanne Cash pretentious (was it really necessary to have Rufus Wainwright sing backup)although undeniably very talented as a songwriter.

    Has Tanya Tucker’s latest been praised that highly? I can’t remember how I heard about it but I’ve heard very little. I think it’s a fantastic album overall and easily the best by her that I’ve heard. I was not that familiar with many of the original versions of the songs she sings. She certainly put her own spin on them like few can.

  5. creatrix
    October 8, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    Oh, Rick has it dead on. If you want it done right, give it to Gail Davies!!

    That said, I will be buying the album.

  6. Barry Mazor
    October 9, 2009 at 8:31 am

    A question for Jay, just to place things: Did you find Johnny Cash pretentious?

    After all, he and June had a New York apt. He made theme albums. He did duets with some very stretchy and officially sanctioned people. Later, he even knew Rick Rubin personally, if you want to talk about slowing things down a lot.

    Just wondering.

  7. stormy
    October 9, 2009 at 8:43 am

    Rufus Wainwright is lot chocolate–he’s not strictly necessary, but there is also no reason to let him go to waste if you have him laying around.

  8. Reen
    October 9, 2009 at 9:06 am

    I find that a lot of artists have jumped on the ‘Classic Country’ bandwagon since Tanya Tucker came out with, ‘My turn’, which by the way is a standout album. She took every song on the album of Male Country Hits, and made them her own. The rest pale in comparison to this album & Tanya Tucker’s voice.

  9. nm
    October 9, 2009 at 9:40 am

    I’m happy to report that Rosanne Cash is not performing the songs live the way she does on the album. They sound a lot less blanded out and swing more, and she manages to convince me that she ought to be singing them. It’s a shame she put out an album that (IMO) doesn’t do either the songs themselves or her take on them much justice.

  10. Peter
    October 9, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    LOL Stormy – I think Rufie would adore that description of him

  11. Razor X
    October 9, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    I haven’t heard the album all the way through yet. I’ve listened to the first eight tracks and so far I am enjoying it a lot. I agree that “I’m Movin’ On” is a bit sluggish, but the rest of the tracks so far are first-rate.

  12. Leeann Ward
    October 9, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    Tanya Tucker hardly led the parade of classic covers albums.

  13. J.R. Journey
    October 11, 2009 at 1:13 am

    I’d say Tanya has lead the parade of albums, Leeann. Her album is my favorite of the covers albums released so far this year, though The List hasn’t had a chance to fully register with me yet. So it could take that title, but so far I think Tanya’s traditional take on the songs, and her own personal spin on them, make My Turn my personal favorite among the parade of classic covers albums. What would you choose?

  14. Leeann Ward
    October 11, 2009 at 7:21 am

    J.R.,

    I was referring to Reen’s comment that said that people have been jumping on the bandwagon of classic covers since Tucker’s album came out:

    “I find that a lot of artists have jumped on the ‘Classic Country’ bandwagon since Tanya Tucker came out with, ‘My turn’, which by the way is a standout.”

    The comment didn’t seem to be only referring to this year, since I wouldn’t even say that there’s a bandwagon to talk about, as we haven’t been especially inindated with covers albums this year to even call a bandwagon. If she was referring to this year though, Tucker’s wasn’t even the first of the year. That’s all I was saying.

    But since you ask, I thought Tucker’s album was pretty weak. It sounded like she was phoning in most of the performances. There’s even an interview where she admits that she didn’t even want to do a covers album and it showed in the final product, in my opinion. I thought Aaron Tippin’s covers album was even better than Tucker’s (which was released prior to Tucker’s this year). I like the Cash album much, much better. And I was actually looking forward to the Tucker set, but was disappointed by it.

  15. Leeann Ward
    October 11, 2009 at 7:36 am

    Come to think of it, it would be more accurate to say that Tucker jumped on the covers bandwagon, since hers followed that of Patty Loveless, Aaron Tippin, Martina McBride, Glen Campbell (though his wasn’t really classic covers)etc., while not too many have followed her covers project so far.

  16. Erik
    October 11, 2009 at 8:46 am

    My favorite covers album this year is by far Wynonna’s, though I haven’t gotten to listen closely to “The List” yet. I love Tanya’s “My Turn” too, but it lacks the passion and variety of Wynonna’s “Sing”

  17. Leeann Ward
    October 11, 2009 at 11:21 am

    I forgot about Wynonna’s album. That one didn’t really stick with me. Tucker’s is more my style.

  18. Jay
    October 12, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    I never thought of Johnny Cash as pretentious. He had a very distinctive persona as a singer and always seemed genuine. She seems to take herself very seriously and i don’t think she’s earned it. She seems to want to be considered some brave political activist and she comes off as a limousine liberal. I’m a liberal but I find Natalie Maines a lot easier to take.

  19. Lori R
    October 22, 2009 at 8:22 am

    It would sure be nice to know what made these songs so important to Johnny Cash.

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