Various Artists – Lost Highway: Lost & Found, Vol. 1

Various Artists
Lost Highway: Lost & Found, Vol. 1

Lost Highway Records has, over the last few years, become the music industry’s answer to Miramax Films (accusations about Harvey Weinstein’s personality and shady dealings notwithstanding). The label has cornered the market for sophisticated, critically acclaimed music that defies both the demands of the fickle top 40 market and the stereotype that grown-up music necessarily equals execrable “adult contemporary” pablum. Whether this was their intention or not is another matter: these folks have made their bones on Americana, roots music, and alternative country acts both traditional and contemporary. The first salvo was the breakout success of the T-Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? That album managed not only to score Grammy and Oscar nods, but also, and perhaps more remarkably, to get Depression-era folk music spinning in the Bose Wave Radios of every yuppie from Nashville to Nashua.
Since then, Lost Highway has continued to build an impressive roster of proven geniuses and up-and-coming talent. The eminence grace of their stable was, of course, Johnny Cash, who recorded with sister label American Recordings. More recently, Kathleen Edwards and Tift Merritt have recorded impressive debuts. A new release has now brought together the width and breadth of the Lost Highway family, and it highlights both the positives and the limitations of their formula.
Ryan Adams is probably one of the top-selling LH artists, but he isn’t well served here by the inclusion of one of his solo efforts (“Rosalie Come and Go,” a Black Crowes-ish outtake from his breakthrough album, Gold) alongside a gorgeous Whiskeytown song – “Choked Up” – from the storied Pneumonia sessions. Since Whiskeytown split during the legal battle that surrounded Pneumonia, Adams has gone on to explore some new sounds, but overall his solo work (not counting the side project Heartbreaker) sounds downright bland and derivative next to the rawness and ragged beauty of Whiskeytown, which always benefited from its twangy root and Caitlin Cary’s contributions on fiddle and harmony vocal.
Like Adams, Lucinda Williams is also represented twice, first by a fantastically filthy-sounding number called “Buick Blues” (available only on the LP version of World Without Tears). Williams snarls the vocal more than sings it, playing up her voice’s raspiness to evoke a female blues singer tradition dating back decades. “Righteously” accomplishes much the same effect but with a full band and slicker production values. It’s one of only five album cuts from studio records that are already out, meaning the producers have done a nice job mining live recordings, B-sides, and other rarities to give something new to fans who probably already know these artists’ canons fairly well.
One nice example of that is “Falling Star,” a cut from a lost-to-history early Jayhawks album that apparently Lost Highway will soon be re-releasing (the famed Bunkhouse record). The crown jewel here in terms of finds, though, has to be Johnny Cash’s haunting reading of the Jimmy Webb chestnut “Wichita Lineman,” which Cash manages to imbue with a pathos it would be hard to have imagined was possible for that familiar song. This was picked from the sessions for Cash’s final non-posthumous album, American IV: The Man Comes Around. His voice is front and center, as it usually is on the Rick Rubin records, and it parries with detuned rhythm guitar and delicate piano fills to eke out every last drop of grit and emotion.
The younger artists have mixed results stacked up next to their more accomplished stable-mates. British newcomers Unamerican aren’t served well by being sandwiched right between Lucinda and Cash, and Marc Broussard’s entry barely registers. On the other hand, Kathleen Edwards delivers a beautiful, breathy reading of “Hockey Skates” from a show at the Bowery Ballroom, accompanied by some inspired but un-showy lead guitar work and plenty of humid atmosphere. Tift Merritt is the real revelation here. “Trouble Over Me” is an instant classic of country song, and it’s easy to see how it landed a treatment in Nick Hornby’s recent essay collection Songbook. Merritt shares Edwards’s ability to evoke both strength and fragility in the same breath, though Merritt has the technically “better” voice. It’s a song about love’s ambiguities, about trying to hold onto romantic independence while still exploring the possibilities of an affair. Country lyrics are rarely better turned than they are by Merritt on this song.
Lost & Found is a startling and eye-opening collection – more than just a promotional tool – that highlights the possibilities still inherent in a genre that occasionally seems like it’s running out of ideas. It turns out there’s a lot more great music to be made in a format that places songs front and center, ahead of style and the histrionics of much of modern pop.