Rules of Travel
Rosanne Cash
Capitol Records

Though she has released 10 albums in 20 years, we haven't heard much from Rosanne Cash since her wonderfully spare collection of tunes 10-Song Demo, released in 1996. Vocal polyps prevented the folk-rock-country singer from singing for almost two years following the birth of her baby boy Jake a few years ago. But now she's back, contributing in the past year to Will the Circle Be Unbroken III, and to the Marty Stuart-produced tribute to her father, Kindred Spirits, where she sings a gorgeous, pure and heartfelt version of one of Johnny Cash's best songs, "I Still Miss Someone."

Now comes Ms. Cash's newest CD of original songs, Rules of Travel, due to be released March 25. Folksy and simple, these tunes contain Cash's trademark personal lyrics, dealing with love, loss and disappointment. Her recuperated voice is in fine shape, with a slightly nasal soprano lilt and the ability to bend notes soulfully. Missing is the humor of some of her best songs from 10-Song Demo like the biting "Take My Body," a satire on the objectification of women, and the glib "If I Were a Man": If I were a man/ I'd be so sweet/ I'd give me everything I need/ I'd be so glad to go this deep/ If I were a man.

Cash writes about her inner life openly and honestly, but some themes, and indeed some tunes, begin to feel repetitive. She cares deeply about the nature of trust and loss in relationships, and sings about them with a vocal reserve that falls somewhere between the sweetness of her sister singer Shawn Colvin and the roughness of her friend Lucinda Williams. The best song on Rules of Travel is a repeat performance of a tune from 10-Song Demo, "Western Wall," a stirring but quiet plea for peace.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

*Rules of Travel will be released March 25

Still Falling
Virgil Shaw
Future Farmer

This, Virgil Shaw's second solo full-length, is not a bad record. It is, however, a rather drab exercise in slightly-weird, art-nasal country-pop, without sounding even slightly like the Mountain Goats, who could be described in almost the same exact way. Mark Eitzel, William Winant, and lots of others guest throughout the record. And counting the five Dieselhed records Shaw was involved in before going solo, this is his seventh full-length. So, why did this come off as so disappointingly ill-conceived?

Still Falling is missing a lot: its slightly clunky hooks somehow fail to grab; its lyrics struggle for "weird" but rarely come off as more than puzzling and a bit dull. The somewhat unpleasant caterwauling vocals aren't much to write home about, either. The songs are so unassuming they all run together and basically fade into the ether. This is odd, considering how loudly everything, especially the vocals, are mixed. The few moments that could be considered attention-getters pretty much direct your newfound attention to the "next" button, such as the chorus of "Clock On the Wall": Wheeerrree the heeellll haaaveee you beee-eeen?!

Still, the first song, "The Drawing", is catchy and well-crafted, the best and most amusing example of his tendency toward internal rhyme: Is that a sun sinking over a mountain, are those some flowers or something? There's a decent cover of Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home" at the end. Unfortunately, the simple beauty of that song does a lot to draw attention to the faults of Virgil Shaw's songs: a clumsy overreaching that really has no idea how far its grasp extends.

--Brian Arnot

Crazy: The Demo Sessions
Willie Nelson
Sugar Hill Records

I've never been the biggest Willie Nelson fan. His albums always smacked of overproduction and seemed to drown out much the inherent character of his voice and naked songwriting abilities. When I finally got a chance to see him at the City Auditorium last year, however, I was won over completely. Not only did his overwhelming stage presence and charisma lift his songs right up onto the crest of his backing band's music, his oft-submerged guitar playing abilities were visibly and audibly evident for the first time.

Now that Sugar Hill Records has released Crazy: The Demo Sessions, reluctant fans like myself finally have a chance to peruse the immediacy of Willie Nelson's now illustrious recording career in its most protean states.

Found in a box simply marked "Pamper Demos" in the vaults of Nashville publishing company in 1994, many of the tracks on these quarter-inch reels that were remastered for this CD were the seeds that led to some of country music's greatest hits. Included here are Nelson's demo recordings of "Three Days," later recorded by Faron Young in 1962 and k.d. lang in 1998, and "Crazy," which was recorded by Patsy Cline in 1961 and went on to become one of the best-known country songs of all time.

Though hearing these now-ubiquitous songs from the country music vernacular is, in itself, a treat, the most hauntingly touching songs on the album are the lesser-known tracks that Willie recorded with nothing but his voice and guitar.

For my money, "Opportunity to Cry" is quite possibly Nelson's greatest song and recording ever. With a steady yet plaintive honesty in his tone and delivery, one gets a fully realized sense of the truly rich sound of his voice unstrained by the effort required to sing over a full complement of musicians. Nelson's much vaunted phrasing is equally baffling as he offers up lines like Just exchange the words "I love you" to "goodbye"/ while I take this opportunity to cry.

"Permanently Lonely" (which was a part of Chet Atkins' first sessions with Willie) and "Are You Sure" are just as heartbreakingly gorgeous and unaffected.

Whether you love Willie Nelson, or are still on the fence about him, you'll want to check out this CD that includes a short multimedia interview with Hank Cochran, Willie's friend who first pitched "Crazy" to Patsy Cline.

--Noel Black



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