Listening closely to an album like Johnny Cash Remixed is just about enough to drive home the point that no, we’re never going to get another new song from Johnny Cash. Sure, some of us came to that conclusion five years ago, but the rest of us refused to believe it. Hearing Johnny Cash Remixed is a constant reminder that the only way to hear a fresh perspective on Cash’s unique and absorbing worldview is to hear what he’s already done as interpreted by others. And while Johnny Cash Remixed is by no means an awful example of a remix album, it’s already fighting an uphill battle in toying with the legacy of a man who no longer has a say in the direction of that legacy.
That said, the reverence offered to most of these takes on Cash’s early material makes them all the more palatable. Aside from the opener, a desecration of “Walk the Line” so heinous that it’ll get its own paragraph later in this review, these are artists who quite obviously have tremendous respect for the man and his musical output. While the preserved amount of Cash’s musical arrangements varies from song to song, it’s obvious in all but that one instance that these artists spent as much energy as possible preserving the spirit of the songs that these updated versions are based on.
Take, for example, the take on “Get Rhythm” by Philip Steir. If you’ve heard Junkie XL’s take on Elvis’ “A Little Less Conversation”, then you know something about what you’re getting into with “Get Rhythm”. It’s a very obvious techno backbeat, piled with synth noise, handclaps, and sampled stabs of guitar. All that’s really left of Cash’s original is his voice, but of all the songs in Cash’s legacy, there are few that make as much sense as a techno track as this, a song dedicated to movement, and Steir actually manages to keep Cash from sounding at all out of place in an environment that doesn’t often employ a voice like his.
On the flipside of tracks like “Get Rhythm” are those like Pete Rock’s take on “Folsom Prison Blues”, a version that hues very closely to the original master track, except with a beat that’s quite obviously been mechanized and beefed up for dancing/foot-tapping purposes. There is no question at all about the source of the recording, and it’s more of a 2008-style enhancement of the original song than a pure remix, which is just fine. Whether you think it actually enhances much of anything probably depends on how closely you’re attached to the man’s originals, but such is the case of any remix album, honestly.
Given such respect on both sides of the remix spectrum, then, it boggles the mind that a travesty like the Snoop Dogg-infested “QDT Muzik Remix” of “I Walk the Line” could even be greenlighted. I’ve got nothing against Snoop in general, but this remix is so wrong as to actually be uncomfortable to listen to. Cash is reduced to sounding like he’s singing one of his most famous and celebrated songs over a payphone, sampled in a key that doesn’t even make sense with the hip-hop musical backing that Teddy Riley and DJ Quik provide. “Set a date / Dip it / Cool Whip it / This is terrific / And so wicked”, Snoop says, settling for rote self-aggrandizement over actually trying to steer his words to Cash’s song. Snoop’s interpretation seems to be that “I Walk the Line” is just one more song to be sampled and torn apart for one of his rap songs, and on an album that, in one sense, is supposed to be a tribute to the man being remixed is just wrong.
Thankfully, Snoop’s transgressions are the exception and not the rule, and even songs on which the band members take on some of the vocals (Alabama 3’s “Leave That Junk Alone”, Kennedy’s “Sugartime”), they’re quite obviously paying tribute to the man rather than using him. Save its one high-profile exception, it’s that attitude toward the source material that actually makes Johnny Cash Remixed worth a listen, rather than simply a glance followed by barely concealed disdain.