Review by Phil Obbard
(for Student.Com)

This week, I'm going to steer clear of commercial releases, and for a change, review an 'unauthorized' release: one highly exceptional bootleg I've come across recently. (Please note that the sale of bootlegs is illegal within the United States, and that even ownership is a crime in the state of New York. Student.Com in no way endorses the sale or transport of unauthorized recorded materials).

In 1993, Johnny Cash returned from a twenty-year period of lackluster material and overproduction (or 'creative-loafing', as it's tactfully called in the liner notes to the 1986 Columbia Recordings compilation) with a stunning new album entitled American Recordings. It opened the ears of many a music lover formerly disdainful of 'country music', which is not to say that it's a 'country and western' album by any means.

Originally, producer Rick Rubin had intended to record a series of demos and a few live shows showcasing the new material Cash had written (or had donated to him by such songwriters as Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and Nick Lowe). With this in mind, Rubin spent several days taping Cash playing and singing unaccompanied on the guitar. He subsequently recorded two live shows before returning to his studio to play-back some of the tapes. At this point, his intention was to chose the best fifteen or so of the rumored 100 songs recorded and to put together a good back-up band for Cash to utilize on the official recordings.

When Rubin listened to the demos, however, he was stunned at the simplicity and beauty of Cash's deep inimitable voice and the lone guitar. Rubin suddenly realized that Cash hadn't sounded so strong since his days with the Sun label nearly forty years earlier, before he had been embellished with the horns, strings, and back-up vocalists of his later recordings. With Cash's permission, Rubin decided to scrap any plans to re-record the material, and simply issued the 'a dozen or so of the best' demo recordings - as well as two live performances. In this manner, American Recordings came into existence, and both critics and fans were in awe at Cash's artistic rejuvenation.

When word surfaced two months ago of a new bootleg entitled American Outtakes, I was only mildly interested. In collector's lingo, "outtakes" usually means a previously unreleased track or two, some different takes of songs, and perhaps a few aborted takes. In other words, "outtakes" are essential for die-hards, but rarely for the casual fan. With three Cash CDs to my name, I definitely don't consider myself much of a fan.

Imagine my complete surprise when I finally found American Outtakes - in fact, I'm still in shock. This could be American Recordings Two. Only one song is repeated between the bootleg and the official release ("Bury Me Not"); the other fourteen tracks on Outtakes are all unique to this disc. Moreover, each track is complete and the sound quality throughout rivals the official release, with little or no tape hiss evident anywhere. Unlike American Recordings, there are no live tracks to be found here, but given the informal atmosphere that dominated the demo sessions, they aren't missed. The whole thing clocks-in at 43 minutes. If American Recordings was intended to have been a double-album (which, to my knowledge, it wasn't) this would be the second part.

How are the songs themselves? Well, not every one is up to "Like a Soldier" from American Recordings - "Breaking Bread" is pretty but slight - yet the vast majority equal those Rick Rubin chose for the official release, and in at least two cases, leave one questioning his judgment. In particular, the atmospheric, dark "Caretaker" probably deserved a second listening: "Who's gonna cry when ol' John dies?" the narrator wonders. "To Beat the Devil" rivals the tongue-in-cheek humor of "Let the Train Blow the Whistle": "Well, I'm not sayin' I beat the devil / but I drank his beer for nothing / Then I stole his song." And "The Drifter" arguably outshines "Drive On". If there's a theme to the songs on American Outtakes, it's a much more upbeat one than that found on it's official counterpart, despite the macabre storyline of "Banks of the Ohio" (which echoes "Delia") and the stock "lost my love" Cash songs. "Friends in California", "The Wonder of You", "The Next Time I'm in Town", and "Old Chunk of Coal" all ring with a no-strings-attached familiarity that is absent from much of American Recordings.

A bootleg everyone needs to hear? Not if you didn't care for American Recordings, I guess, so if you haven't heard the official album yet, I recommend it. Johnny Cash definitely isn't just for country music fans, and besides, American Recordings isn't really country and western anyhow. What is it? Well, it's Johnny Cash... and if you enjoyed it, you need to hear American Outtakes. You'd be doing yourself a disservice otherwise.

Review by Chris Howell
(for Student.Com)

As a fan of Johnny Cash's music, this bootleg is probably the most valuable CD of his that I own. Even as a bootleg, it is on par with American Recordings, the album from whose sessions the songs on Outtakes come. As on American Recordings, Cash is singing some songs from his vast catalogue, some traditional ballads, and some songs that appear to be new compositions, all but one accompanied by only his acoustic guitar. Some highlights include:

To Beat the Devil. Cash singing the same Kris Kristofferson tune that he put on his 1973 album Hello, I'm Johnny Cash. The song is better suited for solo acoustic guitar, and he can sing it better as an older musician than when he was younger.

The Caretaker. A song from Cash's 1959 Songs of Our Soil album, again benefitting from Cash's greater experience and treatment of the song.

If I Give My Soul. By far the cream of the tracks here, this is one of the songs that Cash appears to have written himself around the time of the recording (liner notes give minimal details about the recordings). A song that suits Cash's common themes of love, religion, sin, and repentance perfectly, not to mention his voice and playing. Worth the price of the CD itself, this song is nearly a definition of Cash's music. (Mislabeled on the album sleeve as Flesh and Blood.)

I found the CD in a used shop in Amherst, and immediately paid $20 for it, which I never regretted. I would advise any fan to grab this CD immediately, when they run across it.

Tracks include:

What On Earth
The Drifter
I Witnessed a Crime
Banks of the Ohio
The Next Time I'm In Town
Breaking Bread
To Beat the Devil
Friends In California
The Caretaker
The Wonder of You
East Virginia Blues
Bury Me Not
Old Chunk of Coal
Go On Blue
If I Give My Soul