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Johnny Cash
American V: A Hundred Highways
Lost Highway Records

In the posthumous release of Johnny Cash’s last recordings with producer Rick Rubin, the Man in Black is stripped down to almost nothing, and the result is haunting, potent and gorgeous. The album showcases Cash’s strained vocals—recorded right up until his death on Sept. 12, 2003—breaking and wheezing through songs about death, disease and God, his gravelly intensity beaten down but as resonant as ever.

The last song Cash wrote, “Like the 309,” is the most affecting on the album. Beginning with a dire a capella, Cash sings, “It should be a while before I see Dr. Death. So it would sure be nice if I could get my breath.” But the song takes an almost silly turn after the spooky opening, with Cash requesting his casket be outfitted with an electric fan for his “gnarly old head” and asserting, “Everybody take a look, see I’m doing fine. Then load my box on the 309.” The song is the most transparent look at Cash as he faces death, but hardly his only commentary on the subject: in a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Further On Up the Road” he’s wearing his “dead man suit,” and in a stately, subtly layered version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind,” Cash sings, “And I will never be set free. As long as I’m a ghost that you can’t see.”

Make no mistake: listeners hear Cash on American V as never before. (Skylar Browning)

The Johnny Cash Experience, aka impersonator Dan Whyms, appears at The Other Side Thursday, Aug. 17, at 10 PM. $10.

Nickel Creek
Why Should the Fire Die?
Sugar Hill Records

It’s not enough anymore to refer to Nickel Creek as just a young trio of pristinely polished, über-talented bluegrass players. Things are changing. For starters, Nickel Creek is no longer that young (Sean Watkins is 29, his sister Sara and Chris Thile are both 25), and with Why Should the Fire Die? they’ve moved markedly far from their bluegrass roots.

The band’s third album is heavy on the harmonious pop-rock, and at other points simply heavy. Songs like “Somebody More Like You,” “Best of Luck” and the intriguing crescendo of “Helena” are all reminiscent of something from cutesy college-rock darlings Guster, although set against much more impressive noodling. Softer laments like “Anthony” and “Doubting Thomas” reflect a newfound angst in the writing; the former ends on Sara Watkins’ heartbreaking line, “’cause he doesn’t want anything I have, or anything I am.”

A few tracks will keep fans of the band’s first album content (“Scotch and Chocolate” is a rollicking jig, “Stumptown” an upbeat jam), but Why Should the Fire Die? seems aimed more at those who favor radio-friendly alt-rock than old-timey front-porch picking—or at least tailored to those welcoming of a smoothly delivered combination of the two. (Skylar Browning)

Nickel Creek plays the Wilma Theatre Tuesday, Aug. 15, at 7:30 PM. $27.50.

The Wilders
Rural Grit Records

By some sort of miracle, Dirk Powell, the guru of roots-music production, managed to squeeze The Wilders’ self-proclaimed “Hillbilly Riot” live show onto their fourth CD without quashing any of the band’s reckless exuberance. The Wilders’ cacophonous live shows have earned them die-hard fans among the hippest of the alt-country set and the hula-hooping dreadlocked set. And, come to think of it, the blue-hairs who set their lawn chairs in the front row at bluegrass festivals, the growing audience of punk-cum-old-time fans, the poodle-skirted rockabilly gals, and so on. There’s something for everyone when The Wilders play, and Throwdown has it all.

Multi-instrumentalist Phil Wade’s choice of Dobro, mandolin or clawhammer banjo sets up a different feel for each song on the album. Ike Sheldon’s percussive, washboard-like guitar leaves room for unthinkably deft fiddle licks from Betse Ellis, while Nate Gawron’s galloping bass shepherds the band through the pushing and pulling. This sort of frenzy is hard to capture in the vacuum of a recording studio, but thoroughly translates here, from the opening “Hawk’s Got a Chicken and Flew in the Woods” all the way to the closing “January Waltz.” Aside from seeing it live, Throwdown’s the closest Wilders fans can come to reliving the riot. (Caroline Keys)

The Wilders play The Other Side Monday, Aug. 14, at 10 PM. $14 at Rockin Rudy’s; $16 at the door.

Staggering Statistics
All of This and More
Shake-It Records

Staggering Statistics recorded this recent release on Election Day 2004, but it’s hard to tell if All of This and More is more political or personal. Ambiguous lines like “Bourgeois baby…cast yourself in the starring role/reenact all your lies/for maximum mind control” prove the Ohio-based band has some grievances to air about arrogance and deceit, but the exact aim isn’t clear. Regardless, they’ve successfully created a sharp and striking recording.

John Curley (former bassist of the almost-famous ’90s band Afghan Whigs), guitarist Austin Brown and drummer Joe Klug blend new-wave angst and garage-rock insolence with glimmery indie-folk riffs. “Embrace Your Decay” has the strut and lure of a Stones tune, while the chord progressions and vocal affectations of “Matter of Time” feel marinated in the classic sound of The Who.

Despite comparisons to musical giants, All of This and More is far from derivative. Staggering Statistics has the perspicacity to extract popular instrumental approaches and make them its own by fiddling with unconventional time signatures. Think of the band as a savvier version of the Afghan Whigs—grown up and by no means fading. (Erika Fredrickson)


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