Rosanne Cash's 10 Song Demo was one of the surprise classics of the '90s. When Johnny's daughter sent Capitol Records a batch of raw songs for her next CD, the suits loved them so much they all just decided to release them as is. It's a great collection, straight from the heart, and it made me wonder what she could do if her producer actually booked her some studio time. How could she get any better? That was in 1996, and since then Cash has taken a break -- she had a baby and lost her voice for more than two years. After a miraculous recovery (hastened by singing Italian arias), Cash is back with Rules of Travel, her first studio record in a decade, since 1993's The Wheel.
This is a strong collection, too, but it's no 10 Song Demo -- these songs sound great, but something's been lost under all the spit and polish. Still, Cash's knack for sophisticated lyrics and somber sounds is on display, nicely produced by hubby John Leventhal, who also co-wrote many of the songs. The title song has got to be one of her best ever, and her recording of Craig Northey's "Beautiful Pain," with Sheryl Crow on harmony vocals, is another one that'll keep you humming all week long. Other guests are well chosen, too, including Steve Earle on "I'll Change for You" and Johnny Cash on "September When it Comes." Her dad has been sick, and hearing him on a song about human frailty is a bit haunting; his voice is so distinctive and strong, making this a kind of musical tearjerker.
In case you haven't noticed, I can't help but compare this to 10 Song Demo (which actually contains 11 tracks -- go figure). Rules of Travel is so different, down to the packaging, with an Annie Leibovitz photo on the cover and an elegant booklet. Maybe it's just the two sides of Rosanne Cash; I guess I like the I-just-rolled-out-of-bed-and-picked-up-my-guitar side better.
But Rules of Travel is well worth the long wait -- there's just not that much of it. Clocking in at 39 minutes, you can't help but feel shortchanged in this 80-minutes-per-CD era. And one song, "Western Wall," also appeared on 10 Song Demo. Hmmm... seems like Cash wanted to do something different here but couldn't quite break from the past.