Has there ever been a perfect tribute album? It seems like it would be impossible; how do you make a compilation that honors a band yet betters them at every turn? It’s a paradox. Yet every year sees more and more cover albums issued. All Aboard: A Tribute to Johnny Cash is one such release, and while it never beats the former “man in black,” it sure does give him glory. The liner notes contain blurbs from each of the bands involved, and some of the participants, like the Bouncing Souls and Smoke or Fire’s Joe McMahon, are up front about the feeling that they can’t make these songs any better.
I know art is supposed to be subjective, but scientifically speaking, Johnny Cash is one of the greatest American musicians ever. It’s fact. To try to cover his material faithfully, as many of the bands here do, is an exercise in futility. All Aboard marks the first time I’ve ever listened to Chuck Ragan (“Wreck of the Old 97,” with Jon Gaunt) and thought, “You know, I think he could be gruffer.” That’s not to say that Ragan’s cover fails -- it’s actually pretty good. But he makes me want to listen to more Johnny Cash instead, which might be the highest compliment I can give All Aboard.
Of course, I’d hate to imply All Aboard is in any way a bad compilation, partially because its proceeds benefit The Syrentha Savio Endowment, which in turn kicks the shit out of cancer, but mostly because the CD is actually kind of good. The Souls open the disc with “Man in Black,” and they somehow maintain a lot of the song’s rhythm while adding their trademark Jersey punk style. Indeed, the best covers here try to accentuate certain elements. Depending on one’s perspective, MxPx either gives “Hey Porter” the standard pop-punk cover treatment or they update the song’s catchy leanings. “Hey Porter” was released in 1955; this is what commercial radio used to sound like. To that end, it’s surprising how effortlessly MxPx converts the tune. The Gaslight Anthem pushes “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” to its deepest, darkest peak. It doesn’t even sound like a TGA song -- that’s how far the band goes to honor Cash’s haunting songwriting. The Dresden Dolls and Franz Nicolay, of the Hold Steadu and World/Inferno Friendship Society, deliver an incredible take on the Jack Clement-written “Ballad of a Teenage Queen.” The trio converts the song to their cabaret leanings while maintaining the barbershop harmonies. Nicolay adds accordion, saw and castanets to the mix, which is awesome and spooky. Overall, the Dolls deliver the best cover of the mix, if only because they’re the only ones who seem to break free from the source material and forge something new.
Overall, the album is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. There’s lots of bluegrass and twangin’ a-foot. That works well enough too, I suppose, but it’s the songs mentioned above that really transcend. Being an album of songs Cash either wrote or had a hand in, the lyrics remain brilliant. What I miss, though, is Cash’s gritty baritone. If anyone could express yearning, addiction, strength, humor and love in one breath, it was him.