"American Recordings," Johnny Cash's magnificent 1994 album for Rick Rubin's rock-oriented American label, signaled the latest rebirth of one of country music's most enduring and innovative artists. Cash and producer Rubin have followed up that masterpiece with "Unchained."
Unlike the self-accompanied "American Recordings," the new album features a full band. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (along with some other prominent rock and country musicians) provide tasteful and restrained backup that isn't that far removed in spirit from the elemental sound of "American Recordings," and Cash's still-powerful deep baritone remains one of country music's great wonders. Cash turns in convincing performances on a wide variety of material stretching from old country standards to modern alt-rock. In fact, some of the strongest performances are the alternative covers (Beck's "Rowboat," Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" and Spain's "Spiritual"). Cash also reworks a couple of his early Sun recordings and contributes a new spiritual. The more-varied sound and material provides an effective showcase for the full range of his talents.
While not quite as focused as his last effort, "Unchained" is testament to the wide-ranging genius and continuing vitality of Johnny Cash.