Friday, September 12, 2008

Johnny Cash Remixed

I read an academic paper once that argued that hip-hop sampling was just a natural technological continuation of the practice of quotation in jazz and the blues.* The implicit corollary was that jazz, the blues, and other primarily African American musical forms were natural and inherently appropriate sources for quotation by sampling. Johnny Cash Remixed seeks to see how well country music, a music usually considered outside the African American vernacular music tradition, fares when quoted and reinterpreted in the hip hop vernacular.

There’s a fair amount of general skepticism in country and roots music circles about the potential of this sort of remixing and of this records in particular.

It would be hard to call this record a success, in spite of a few stand out tracks, but I think its failures can show us some of the dangers that must be dealt with when remixing music history.

The most mediocre tracks on the album, such as Count De Money’s “Big River,” suffer from a lack of imagination; they merely add a beefed up, somewhat-electrified rhythmic base or filter the original vocal or instrumental track through echo or distortion digital effects. These tracks fail by being too faithful to the original, refusing to add anything interesting out of fear of overshadowing it.

At the other end of the spectrum, “I Walk the Line,” remixed by QDT Musik featuring Snoop Dogg, has a jarring disjoint between the tenor of the source material and the added sounds. I actually kind of like QDT’s beats here, but Johnny’s vocals, old analogue monaural recordings that they are, sound thin next to the dynamically richer synthesizer and new vocal recordings, and the original is never adequately integrated into the mix or into the song. I’m torn as to whether this is a failure of intention, not respecting the source material, or a failure of execution; it’s probably partially both. Overall, I’d say this collection suffers from a general disjointedness between the largely acoustic and analog source material and the very electronic-sounding new material.

Interestingly, the two tracks that undeniably succeed succeed for different reasons. The Midnight Juggernauts’ “Port of Lonely Hearts” is largely just a reworking of the music behind Johnny's vocals, but unlike “Big River,” in which the added rhythm tracks imitate and fight with the original instrumentation, here the sparse original accompaniment is largely jettisoned in favor of an equally sparse, ethereal and electronic sound into which Johnny’s vocals and a remnant of the original guitar are deftly integrated.

Alabama 3 has perhaps the best track on the album, unsurprising, as this sort of postmodern mixture has been their thing for quite some time. It is obvious that they respect their source material, yet they are unafraid of totally dismantling it to create something new. While the central author of all of the other tracks remains Johnny Cash, Alabama 3 essentially creates their own new song, which just happens to share a chorus with and include samples from Johnny Cash’s “Leave that Junk Alone.”

Johnny Cash - Leave that Junk Alone [Alabama 3 Remix]

From Amazon

* Andrew Bartlett, “Airshafts, Loudspeakers, and the Hip Hop Sample: Contexts and African American Musical Aesthetics,” African American Review 28 (1994):639–652.